The world's first carbon neutral housing development can be found in Sutton, specifically in Hackbridge. It's the Beddington Zero Energy Development, or BedZED for short, a pioneering scheme opened up to tenants in 2002. The surrounding neighbourhood has a real mix of housing types, from interwar semis to flats, and overlooks a scrappy patch of gravel workings and sewage sludge beds. But you'll know when you've found the place because its skyline is so utterly out of the ordinary. Just what shape is that upper storey, and what are all those colourful vents on the roof?
The development contains 82 homes across approximately half a dozen timber buildings, each resembling a large wooden longhouse, and carefully aligned for optimal solar gain. The south-facing walls are almost entirely glass, while the other walls are much thicker, which helps to keep heating costs down. Everyone has either a front garden or a skygarden, and a double-glazed conservatory for good measure. A communal boiler supplies hot water, and dual flush toilets were a relatively new concept when they were installed help reduce consumption. As for the twirly wind cowls on the roof, they're to draw in fresh air from outside, pre-warmed by outgoing stale air via heat exchangers. London could have built more high-density eco-friendly estates like this over the last 15 years, but they don't come cheap, and instead low-investment brick boxes have become the capital's default.
Not everything about BedZED has worked. The communal biomass wood chip boiler turned out to be unreliable and had to be replaced by a gas boiler. The on-site water recycling facility wasn't clean enough and cost too much to be viable, and levels of passive heating proved insufficient. As a result the estate turned out not to be carbon neutral, more like 70% over its emissions budget, but that's still hugely impressive when compared to the 'average' British home. Lessons have been duly learned, and successfully applied elsewhere. What's more, water consumption is generally half that of you or I, half of the homes remain low cost rent or shared ownership, and the car club has been standard since day one. That was called ZEDcars, obviously.
An official tour costs £18, aimed at interested parties whose place of employment or study would pay. But I wandered round the 'streets' for a couple of minutes, avoiding the large greenspace where the kids were out playing, and found the development rather appealing. The central walkways were quiet and characterful, with a series of private footbridges arching overhead, and the one resident I spoke to was friendly rather than barking me off the premises. But I'm not sure I could live with the lack of privacy afforded by the glass frontage. Walking past the southern flank felt like staring into the residents' souls, their possessions shoved up against the windows... but I was then swiftly distracted by the spring gardens, and of course those bright colourful things on the roof.
Stepping back a century, here's a tale of Homes For Heroes. After the Great War was over, Surrey County Council looked to create employment for returning soldiers by providing smallholdings on open land south ofCarshalton, previously used for the growing of lavender and peppermint. Construction began in 1920, and 79 cottages were built (total cost £87,875), each with a few acres of land. Somewhat unexpectedly these weatherboarded semi-detached beauties are still there, if mostly no longer used for their original purpose, in what by London standards is very much the middle of nowhere.
One way to get there is by 166 bus, alighting at the lavender fields and walking for a mile, but a better way is to head south down Boundary Road in Carshalton On The Hill. Eventually the rise of Rustic-bethan commuter homes gives way to a country lane, bollarded to traffic - the so-called Telegraph Track. A battered green sign on the verge indicates that Holdings 21-42, 8-3 and 15-11 lie ahead, that is if I've interpreted the missing digits properly. Approach from the other end and a slightly more modern sign even gives the surnames of some of the tenants, including two Watts, a Glanville and a Chittenden, although I'm assuming that's now substantially out of date. When an 87 year old tenant died in 2009, the local paper reported that only four of the smallholdings were still in operation.
You can still see them as you go by, with their polytunnels and greenhouses, and sheep and (mostly) ponies grazing in the fields. The occasional small tractor hums ready to shift a bit of feed, and the latest generation of hired hands stands around mulling over their next agricultural priority. Down one rough drive is Sutton Community Farm, keeping up the old traditions with a more diverse selection of volunteers and a weekly veg box delivery, with the pak choi and mixed salad locally sourced. Somewhere out in the fields are a specialist herb growers, family-run for the last 35 years, and also a large carnivorous plant nursery, with visits by appointment only. It does still feel ridiculously rural round here. And yet.
Most of the servicemen's cottages are now in private hands, their gardens encompassing a much smaller acreage than before, and often with a Range Rover in the driveway. Some are hedged in, others warn of dogs running free, while others retain an open charm. Stand at the central mini-crossroads and a security camera watches down on you from a pole, no worse than any inner London estate but somehow here more unsettling, which is probably how the nouveau residents want it to be. They have to put up with a public footpath running through, and a cycleway connection to Oaks Park, but all the better for the rest of us to see the preserved isolation they enjoy, and the ultimate council houses they live in.