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Vote to end beer ‘tie’ may help give villages a more sustainable future

Could yesterday’s defeat of the Government in the Commons be a straw in the wind, hinting that MPs are starting to listen to their constituents? Certainly it was a blow for the big business pubcos who have done so much damaged to rural communities. The value of their shares dropped today.

The MPs voted to end the stiff rules that force tenants of pubs owned by the pubcos — getting on for half of Britain’s pubs — to pay much more for their beer than free houses. The BBC report has a table of prices paid by landlords who are “tied” (forced to buy beer from their the pubco rather than on the open market). The worst example is a keg of Fosters which wholesales for £81.49 but is sold by pubcos to their tenants for £150.22.

This is one of the reasons why so many people who hopefully start their own business running a pub end up getting out of the trade. For villages the pub is particularly important. It is not simply a social meeting place but it is often the only restaurant.

Having a pub that serves food is for me a mark of a village which has a sustainable future. We all need a local restaurant for celebrations and when we simply don’t want to cook at home.

Losing the vote on an amendment to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill seems to have come as a surprise to the coalition leaders. Forty one Liberal Democrat and Tory MPs ignored the whip and went into the lobby  with Labour MPs. It was the first defeat in a whipped vote in this parliament.

Maybe MPs are starting to take more notice of what they hear in their constituencies and less of their leaders as the prospect of next general election draws closer. There are probably few MPs, other than those who are retiring, who are not worried about their prospects of re-election: these are strange and turbulent times in politics.

The change in the way pubs are run will not be immediate, even assuming the Government does not try to reverse the decision. A five-year transition is proposed.


25 years ago Mrs Thatcher made an impassioned plea to the world for action on the environment

A tweet from Ben Gummer, the Ipswich MP, led me to a resumé of a speech Margaret Thatcher. Now we can only regret that the world did not listen more carefully and take action.

Part of what she said to the General Assembly of the United Nations was:

What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate—all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.

We can find examples in the past. Indeed we may well conclude that it was the silting up of the River Euphrates which drove man out of the Garden of Eden…

The difference now is in the scale of the damage we are doing.

It was a powerful speech, the full importance of which seems to have been lost on even some of her most fervent followers.

As Peter Franklin, author of the post, comments: “If David Cameron were to do that today, he’d immediately be accused of being out-of-touch, of obsessing over an issue far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary voters.”

There is a link to the post in the tweet above: it is well worth reading.

Heston Blumenthal ‘stole’ my mother’s recipe!

Until this morning I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I could write the headline above. The evidence might not convince a jury but the similarities between Heston’s method of boiling an egg to which the Guardian’s Do Something magazine devoted a whole page and my mother’s are remarkable.

The defining characteristic of both Heston’s and my mother’s method is that you do not boil the egg at all.

You put the eggs in a pan and just cover with water then place the pan on a ring turned up to full heat. As soon as the water comes to the boil you take the pan off the heat and leave it to stand for several minutes. Then eat an egg with a white that has not turned rubbery and has a perfect soft yolk.

There are some slight differences. Heston insists on a glass lid on the pan so that you can see when the water is coming to the boil. I don’t think glass lids were available when my mother was cooking (she died when Heston was a toddler) so she left the pan un-lidded.

His very precise standing time of 6 minutes also seemed a tad long to me. But I decided to follow his recipe exactly with the slight variation of having to lift the lid a few times so that I could see when the water was coming to the boil. Otherwise I respected the formula for “the perfect boiled egg” which he tells us was arrived at after “relentless trials”.

The result was overcooked yolks, starting to go hard. The whites were excellent. Like the curate’s egg they were good in parts.

Something must be missing from the article in Do Something. Perhaps an essential point was removed by a sub to make the piece fit. For a start we do not know if Heston stores his egg in the fridge or a traditional larder. Nor do we know the size of the egg or its freshness (ours were laid between ten and 14 days ago).

I can’t include a link to the article because the Guardian’s website content for the November edition of Do Something ends on page 38. The How to… boil an egg piece is on page 42.

Eco note: this method of cooking eggs uses less energy than the tradition approach of boiling the water, adding eggs and continuing to boil.

Tuesday, November 11: The Guardian has put the column on the web. What happened to their web first policy?

Golden jubilee of school that breathed life into a village

Fifty years ago Debenham High School opened and today it is marking its golden jubilee at an event to which former staff and students are invited.

The first headmaster, Arthur Holifield, and his wife Kay, who taught at the primary school, demonstrated their commitment to the community by building their family home half way between the two schools.

They called the bungalow Ridgeway because they had previously lived close to the long distance path of that name which they loved. It also sits on the high ground between the valleys of the nascent River Deben and one of its tributaries. It was built to a high standard of design and comfort and is the building we bought after the death of Kay and have updated to eco standards.

The name Ridgeway is not changing. It is appropriate to the position and like Arthur and Kay we love the long distance path. Some years ago we walked from Tring to Avebury, almost the entire length of Ridgeway.

Without the High School Debenham would be a very different place today. It played an essential part in reversing a century-long decline in this ancient small market town in a fairly remote part of Suffolk.

Between 1841 and 1961 the populating had halved from 1,667 to 843. It was a story of agricultural decline through depression and mechanisation and the population drift to towns.

The population figures show what looked like almost irreversible decline as agricultural changes continued to force people out of farming jobs. For such communities the sign of hope was increasing car ownership which was fuelling commuting.

Debenham got more than its natural share of this increase in rural population. Between 1961 and 2011 the population nearly trebled from 843 to 2,369. One of the reasons it has been so attractive is good schools, something estate agents continue to promote as a reason for living here.

The rise in population means that Debenham still has a god range of shops including a post office, a frequent bus service and two pubs. It is in a lot better state than much of rural England.

But it faces new challenges as issues of global warming and fuel prices change perceptions of what is sustainable in a rural community. We will need more local jobs.

The parish council is now working on a village plan which will help shape the community’s future.



Solar electricity prices increasingly matching and beating fossil fuel

Solar electricity is rapidly heading towards price parity and better, according to a report from Deutsche Bank. While the report is about the US market there is no reason to believe that similar circumstances do not apply in other parts of the world, including the UK.

The Bloomberg financial news service reports:

Gone are the days when solar panels were an exotic plaything of Earth-loving rich people. Solar is becoming mainstream, and prices will continue to drop as the technology improves and financing becomes more affordable, according to the report….

The reason solar-power generation will increasingly dominate: it’s a technology, not a fuel. As such, efficiency increases and prices fall as time goes on. The price of Earth’s limited fossil fuels tends to go the other direction.

Solar is on track to be as cheap or cheaper than average electricity prices in 47 US states in 1916 even if the current 30% tax credit drops to 10%. The bank’s chart shows the position state by state.

Not surprisingly the biggest price advantage for solar is in Hawaii followed by California. But then comes New York and several other north eastern states with sunshine hours closer to those in northern Europe. Looking closely at the chart it is hard to see a correlation between climate and electricity price.

Price parity or better for 36 US states in 2016.

Price parity or better for 36 US states in 2016.

The Bloomberg article comments:

Solar will be the world’s biggest single source of electricity by 2050, according to a recent estimate by the International Energy Agency. Currently, it’s responsible for just a fraction of one percent.

Because of solar’s small market share today, no matter how quickly capacity expands, it won’t have much immediate impact on the price of other forms of energy. But soon, for the first time, the reverse may also be true: Gas and coal prices will lose their sway over the solar industry.

The prediction of declining importance for gas and oil prices is why finial markets are becoming increasing interested in alternative energy sources.

New insecticide threat to bees

One of the joys of Ridgeway has been the immediate success of the small wild flower meadow we sowed in the front garden. The land had been churned up by a trench to put the electricity supply underground, the removal of an apple tree killed by honey fungus and heavy trucks. Dealing with this gave us the opportunity to sow a wild flower mix from Walnes, the seed merchants in the next village, Earl Soham.

They told us we should get some flowers this year but were not prepared for the blaze of colour of corn cockle, cornflower, corn marigold, vetch, mallow, knapweed, ox-eye daisies and more. There were some we did not want including thistles.

Cornflowers were among the first to establish themselves in our small meadow. People have been stopping us in the street to say how much they loved the wild flowers.

Cornflowers were among the first to establish themselves in our small meadow. People have been stopping us in the street to say how much they loved the wild flowers.

The flowers immediately attracted bees, butterflies and other insects. There were quite a lot of bees but fewer honey bees than we had hoped for. The idea of another insecticide to threaten bees fills us with horror.

But this week I have learned that the Canadian authorities are likely to approve a systemic insecticide called flupyradifurone. A blog post by David Suzuki who runs an environmental foundation in Canada alerted me to the threat. He explains the situation well:

Flupyradifurone is an insect-killing systemic pesticide similar to the controversial neonicotinoid, or neonic, family of bee-killing chemicals. When applied to seeds or soil, it’s absorbed by plant roots and travels to leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar, making the plant potentially toxic to insects.

This past summer, the international Task Force on Systemic Pesticides analyzed 800 scientific studies and concluded that systemic pesticides like neonics are harming bees, butterflies, birds and worms and should be phased out globally. The European Union banned three neonics for “crops attractive to bees”, but the European Environment Agency says that’s just a starting point, and recommends regulators look at similar pesticides and take into account potential harmful effects on aquatic invertebrates, birds and other insects. The EEA also found “mounting scientific evidence has been systematically suppressed for many years and early warnings were ignored.”

Bayer Crop Science who want to sell this chemical around the world under the name Sivanto has applied to the EU for approval and want to get it by the end of next year.

The company has a web site devoted to promoting Sivanto which includes this:

Can SIVANTO® prime be applied during bloom and bee flight on crops attractive to bees?

All the results of extensive lab and field testing under worst-case exposure scenarios indicate that SIVANTO® prime has a low intrinsic toxicity to adult and immature stages of honey bees. Studies indicate that SIVANTO® prime has no adverse effects on foraging honey bees, their foraging activity, brood and colony development, hive vitality and honey bee health or on over-wintering colonies when used according to label instructions.

Note the “used according to label instructions” and contrast it with this from Health Canada, the regulatory body there:

Flupyradifurone may pose a risk to bees, non-target beneficial arthropods, and freshwater and saltwater invertebrates when used for foliar application. Flupyradifurone may pose a risk to birds and small wild mammals when used for soybean seed treatment.

Flupyradifurone can enter the environment when it is used as an insecticide for control of a large number of pests in a variety of crops. It can be applied as a foliar spray, as a soil drench and as a seed treatment. Flupyradifurone is systemic and, therefore, can reach pollen and nectar through its movement inside the plant.

However, in a later section, the Health Canada report says:

To mitigate the potential effects of flupyradifurone to bees, foliar applications are to be made in the early morning or evening when bees are not actively foraging, and measures to reduce drift are to be followed, as specified on the label of Sivanto 200 SL.

So its OK then because every potential user will follow the instructions on the label exactly. And if they do they are  only “mitigating” (make less severe, serious, or painful) not eliminating the danger. The case against flupyradifurone being approved for use anywhere seem to me to be clear. I am not a scientists but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand that last sentence quoted from the regulatory body which is apparently set to give its approval.


The ‘comfort take’ and other benefits of better insulated homes

Calculating energy savings from insulating a home looks simple — making a house twice as efficient will cut fuel bills by half. But it is not that easy and a new report for the Energy Bill Revolution organisation has introduced me to the concept of the “comfort take”.

This reflects the fact many people, especially those who have been turning thermostats down to save money will heat their homes to a warmer temperature.

So Cambridge Econometrics who have produced the report, Building the Future: The economic and fiscal impacts of making homes energy efficient (pdf) use the “comfort take” to calculate savings. When looking at the energy bill savings from investment in insulating the average low income home they see a saving of £408. But after accounting for the “comfort take” the figure comes down to £245.

In a footnote they explain:

Homes with fuel poor residents often tend to be under-heated due to the high costs associated with heating. This means that modelling of energy demand and energy savings can be over-estimates, as they do not account for the behaviour and energy use patterns of the residents. It can be that, after energy efficiency measures have been installed, the residents increase the warmth of their homes (due to the reduced costs of achieving the warmer temperature), rather than achieving the predicted energy bill savings associated with energy efficiency. This is known as ‘comfort take’ – and assumed to account for a 40% reduction in the predicted energy bill savings for the purpose of this research.

The warmer home may result in further savings. The report estimates that for every £1 spent on reducing fuel poverty, a return of 42 pence is expected in National Health Service (NHS) savings (there is a footnote to explain this figure).

Overall the report concludes:

  • A far more ambitious home energy efficiency investment programme would increase UK GDP by£13.9 billion a year by 2030 
  • Radical programme would create up to 108,000 new UK jobs  
  • It would deliver £4.95 billion in financial savings per year for UK households by 2030
  • Gas imports would be cut by 25%, boosting energy security
  • £1.27 in tax revenue would be returned for every £1 invested by Government

Energy Bill Revolution is supported by a wide range of charities, industry and local authorities.

Flytipping rises after seven years of decline

“Councils point finger at householders for 20% rise in illegal dumping of rubbish” runs a headline in the Guardian today.

The rise in flytipping does not surprise me but to blame householders borders on the disingenuous. Look at this screen grab from a Google search for “recycling centre closures” I made this morning:

Screen grab from Google search for "Recycling centre closures".

Screen grab from Google search for “Recycling centre closures”.

All around the country local dumps have been closed by councils trying to cut costs. They must have known this could result in an increase in flytipping. It is one of the consequences of which they have been regularly warned by communities campaigning against such cuts. The surprise is that it has not come earlier.

In truth the situation is not nearly as bad as that 20% figure suggests. It might just be a blip in a downward trend which has seen fly tipping incidents in England fall from 2,500,000 in 2005-06 to 700,000 in 2012-13.

In the past year they rose to 85,000 incidents, an increase of 15,000. Eight years ago a 20% increase would have been 500,000 incidents. Seeing a percentage figure always prompts the question: “Per cent of what?”

Poor pay 11% of income on fuel: the average is 4%

More evidence of the increasing divide between the rich and poor in the United Kingdom came yesterday figures released yesterday by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The average household spending on domestic energy has dropped from around 5% in the early 1980s to a little under 4% in 2012.

But the poorest 20% of homes have not shared in the benefit: they are now spending 11% of disposable income on energy. That is nearly three times the average.

These startling figures come from the The Carbon Brief blog whites mined the data from DECC to produce Seven unexpected graphs about the UK’s energy sector. The cost of electricity, gas and other fuels has been rising since it bottomed-out in 2004. Between 2002 and 2012 energy bills increased by 55 per cent, after accounting for inflation.

It seems the lower average spend is, in part, a result of gas prices. UK consumers pay the second lowest prices in Europe, with only people in Luxembourg charged less. But because we use more gas than most countries we are seventh from the bottom in the table of expenditure on gas.

Another factor in energy spending as a proportion of household budgets  over the 30 year period appears to have been improved insulation of houses, more efficient boilers and increased wealth.

It would be interesting to see more figures on oil and electricity prices. In rural areas like the one where I live there is no gas and that deprives people of those relatively lower prices for gas. A high proportion houses are also hard to insulate.

Two maps of Suffolk at Rural Fuel Poverty go a long way to explaining why we face so many problems. One shows homes connected to gas and the other the proportion of solid walled (hard to insulate) houses. In many parts of the county three-quarters of homes are solid walled and only small areas (albeit the more densely populated ones) have gas.


This is the house that generates enough surplus energy to run the car

A new house in Norway goes beyond the dreams running a house without importing energy — the ZEB (Zero Emission Buildings) pilot house in Larvik meets all its energy needs and produces a surplus, enough to run an electric car all year round.

The zero emissions house in Larvik, Norway: The roof slope maximises solar generation. Picture: Snøhetta, architects

The zero emissions house in Larvik, Norway: The roof slope maximises solar generation. Picture: Snøhetta, architects

The designers, Snøhetta, say:

To achieve ZEB-OM classification the project is required to document and verify a minimum of 100% CO2 offsetting. Renewable energy production via photovoltaic and solar-thermal panels integrated in the building envelope enables offsetting of carbon emissions generated by the burning of fossil fuels in power stations. By offsetting in this manner we reduce emission of other greenhouse gasses simultaneously. Focus on carbon emissions associated with building materials represents a new direction in the vital drive toward a sustainable construction industry.

The new building is designed as a family house but is a research project to demonstrate and develop technologies for “plus houses” which generate more than they use. See this Wikipedia article on “plus houses”.

Naturally, the Larvik house used a lot of eco technology but also traditional solutions such as utilising thermal mass.


Image: Snøhetta

The house is a collaboration between research bodies and industry. ZEB, the research centre on zero emission building says its vision is to “eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions caused by buildings”.