Tomorrow, we shall be out of the EU. Depending on your point of view this is either a triumph, a tragedy, or something in between. But after three and a half years of often angry debate, this is where we are. It is happening, whether we like it or not.
But I do hope that our exit does not mean that we stop co-operating with and learning from our European neighbours, because there is certainly a lot to learn.
In December and January I spent a few weeks in Germany, in the southwest city of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, and I can tell you that everything they do there – planning, housing, transport, recycling, leisure – is, in my opinion, better, smarter and greener than in the UK.
Take transport: Freiburg is a city of only 230,000 people yet it has an extensive tram network that provides around 60 million journeys a year. There are 40 kilometres of track and 70% of the population live within 500 metres of a tram stop, with a tram every eight mins. A ticket of any distance costs €2.30. Can any city in the UK of a comparable size boast such a system?
Freiburg has a huge central pedestrian zone where no cars are allowed. There are cycle lanes everywhere. Two weeks ago, I cycled to a village seven miles away to see an evening performance of Guys and Dolls and the whole route was either on quiet back streets or well- lit cycle lanes. There are easy-to-use car share schemes with their cars parked in designated spaces in every neighbourhood.
Take recycling. Every supermarket has a machine where you can insert your plastic and glass bottles and receive money back – 25 cents for a plastic bottle and eight cents for glass.
Or take planning and housing. The city has a number of well-planned traffic-free suburbs where social and private housing sits side by side. On the south side of Freiburg is an eco- settlement called Vauban with over 2,000 homes and 5,500 residents. It was previously a French barracks (France occupied this region post-World War II). It was occupied by squatters for many years and still has a slight hippy feel. All the homes are low energy, with social and private mixed together. Many of them are Passivhaus.
Vauban has its own power station fed by wood chips and many homes have solar panels. The Solar Settlement of 59 homes is the first housing site in the world to produce a positive energy balance, with the surplus being sold to the city-grid. A tram runs through the site and most of the roads are car free: stellplatzfrei – literally, “free from parking spaces”. Parking is banished to the edge of the site where a space costs over €20,000 plus a monthly fee. Around 70% of households have no private car. The number of cars per thousand residents in Vauban is about 180, compared to a national average of more than 500. Does the UK have anywhere like this?
The housing that I have visited also appears to be far superior to UK homes in terms of the quality of construction and finishes, insulation, windows, doors etc. The apartments I stayed in comprise about 120 flats in eight modern blocks set in landscaped car-free grounds, all built to a Passivhaus standard. The blocks are connected underground by a vast parking garage – which also contains bin stores, cycle stores and a personal cellar for each flat of about 12 square metres, where you can store all your stuff. The roofs are green; there is a water wheel on an adjacent stream that feeds the communal electricity supply, and heating and hot water comes from a wood chip power plant.
But one small example, the key question, will suffice to highlight the differences between the UK and Germany. In the UK renting or owning a typical flat will require you to have a bunch of five or more keys: one for the flat, one for the communal entrance, the garage, the balcony door, the bin store etc. In this apartment there is a single key that opens nine separate doors, viz. the flat door, the communal entrance door at ground level, the communal entrance in the garage, the bin store, the entrance to the cellar, the entrance to the cellar store, the pedestrian entrance to the garage, the car entrance to the garage, and the bike store. That means that when I went out I carried a single key and a key for my bike lock. It is quite liberating. Does anywhere in the UK have a similar system?
As I say, Brexit or no Brexit we still have a lot to learn from our European neighbours. One of the problems in UK housing is that we tend to be too insular, too bound up in our own petty rules and distractions and too resistant to learning lessons from other sectors and other countries. I hope that we can still take the time and effort to visit and learn from places like Freiburg. If you want to visit I am open to approaches!
(This blog was first published on the Housing Quality Network on 23/01/2020)