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Green energy boost for Soundskills Centre in Ribbleton

Posted on - 25th August, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Brookfield, Charities, Preston Council, Preston News, Ribbleton
Chris Davis who is project co-ordinator at Soundskills in Brookfield Pic: BBC LDRS

Work to make a Preston community centre more energy efficient is going to be used to spearhead a project that aims to do the same thing for the homes of the residents that the facility serves.

The Soundskills Centre, on the Brookfield estate in the north east of the city, has secured £35,000 to part-fund the retrofitting of its base on Langcliffe Road.

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It is hoped that the dual benefit of lower bills and a reduced carbon footprint will then be replicated across the entire area by using the building as a “demonstrator” site to show local people what can be achieved by making similar alterations to the properties in which they live. The aim is also to provide estate-dwellers with the skills needed to carry out the works.

At the moment, even government-subsidised green energy modifications like installing good insulation and renewable-based methods of heating homes are so expensive that they remain out of reach for many households – not least those in what is one of the most deprived areas of Preston.

However, Soundskills’ project co-ordinator Chris Davis says that the time is approaching when “somebody is going to have to push the button” on a wholesale retrofit programme nationwide – and he hopes that the initiative planned for the Brookfield will ensure that the estate is perfectly placed to capitalise on that moment. He is, though, under no illusions about the likely place of environmentally-friendly energy on the list of locals’ priorities.

“For many people, the green conversation is at odds with [the fact that] they are thinking: ‘How am I going to get to next Thursday, financially?’

“But when you look at the energy crisis, part of the reason they’re struggling to get to next Thursday is that they’re putting eight quid in a meter every day, if they’ve got a big family – and three quid of that is probably going out of the windows and through the roof.

“Just improving the fabric of the building can do quite a lot of good, such as making sure that the house is well insulated. So there are tangible connections.

“[At Soundskills], we have never been green warriors or anything like that – we’re very much social realists. So this is about being able to control your own destiny,” Chris explained.

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Brookfield Spaceplace, the local charity which operates the community centre on the estate, has been handed the £35,000 as part of the Advancing a Shared Economy in Preston programme. That initiative, which is jointly funded by Preston City Council and national charitable trust Power to Change, stumped up the cash to match fund money already raised for the project by Soundskills.

The idea, Chris says, was born out of the very basic need to repair a leaking roof at the 28-year-old community centre – which then sparked a conversation about retrofitting.

However, he feels that one of the most appealing aspects of the scheme that has been developed since is its capacity to bring cutting-edge technology to residents on the estate at the time they need it most – while also empowering some of their number to actually deliver it for their neighbours.

“Quite often in areas of deprivation, we’re the people who get the pioneering stuff last. And to actually convince people [of its worth], it’s so much easier if you are able to show them what it is and what the benefits are.

“Prior to developing this project, I’d never heard the word ‘retrofit’. I’m sure you could ask everybody in Preston and 98 percent of them probably wouldn’t know what the word meant – [nor] what an air source heat pump is.

“Also, if you look at local colleges, there’s not a start-to-end ‘become a retrofitter’ course – it’s generally construction courses that people go through [to enter the building trade].

“So we’re looking at the potential for being able to identify some local tradespeople, particularly carpenters and roofers, who we might be able to upskill to become retrofitters.

“We’re confident that we have skills locally and the in-house capacity on the estate to be able to achieve this,” Chris said.

He is also keen to work with the city’s education providers to develop a route into retrofitting for those young people who might not even yet have “a plan of action” for what they would like to do with their lives.

When Lancashire launched its latest attempt to secure a devolution deal from the government early last year, it included a call for locally-led energy solutions, such as decarbonised heating systems, an improvement in energy efficiency and local renewable electricity generation to match the county’s growth.

That chimes with Chris’ vision for the future of the Brookfield’s energy needs – and he believes that the estate and its residents could be in the right place at the right time to make it a reality.

“The energy crisis has brought the issue into focus. You think about who the big drivers are, the people in control of these things and who they are benefitting – and it’s very clear they’re benefiting themselves.

“It seems to me that if you’re going to turn some of that stuff around, you need to start grabbing the steering wheel and taking it towards the place that you want to be”.

Read more: Preston homes upgraded ahead of winter thanks to Affordable Warmth Fund

Fancy being a retrofitter?

A co-operative will deliver the initial community centre retrofit and whatever follows on from it, with three estate residents all receiving on-the-job training as part of that first project.

Chris hopes that the demonstrator will be up and running by early next summer before a business plan is drawn up to get the broader scheme going thereafter – with a team of people then being on board to deliver a service to fellow residents.

Anybody from the Brookfield estate who is interested in getting involved should email Chris at retrofitplusbrookfield@gmail.com

Preston City Council’s cabinet member for community wealth building, Valerie Wise, said that the project was an example of “partnership working with a community group to establish a business showcasing opportunities for local, skilled employment in a growing sector of the economy, focussed on energy security and resilience to climate change”.

“Cooperative businesses, which are a key part of community wealth building, are democratic by definition which means that those who do the work of the business have an equal voice in deciding how it’s run,” Cllr Wise added.

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