UK Breakthrough for Off-Gas Communities

Transforming the face of UK off-gas communities is a village of 300 homes called Swaffham Prior. This innovative village, on the edge of the Fens in East Cambridgeshire has come up with a non-oil solution to heating their homes. Whilst district heating (even in rural communities) is commonplace across Europe, Swaffham Prior is leading the UK ‘s charge to start making seismic shifts in attitudes and behaviours in advance of the 26th International UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow next year.

The Heating Swaffham Prior project, kickstarted by the forward-looking Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust working alongside Cambridgeshire County Council has just been granted planning permission to build England’s first rural, village scale heat network and local renewable energy centre. With more than 40,000 villages in the UK, many reliant on oil, this could be the first of many to follow and the hope of Government. 

This landmark moment of the project coincides with Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Recovery from the pandemic and the creation of 250,000 new jobs. Retrofit is a key action from the plan. Existing off-gas properties are a key target for Government, with a consultation on ‘how to do it’ widely expected in the new year. 

Swaffham Prior is a typical rural village with a historic core and conservation area, surrounded by homes built in spurts throughout the decades. Approximately a third of the homes are currently affordable housing there are two churches, a pub and village school.  

The project will not only save over 47,000 tonnes in carbon emission over the life time of the energy centre but will make renewable heating affordable and accessible to all. To install an individual air source heat pump and upgrading of energy efficiency will cost £15,000 plus. Only a few people can make that level of investment. A key project objective from the start was that household income should not be a barrier to joining the heating scheme. All upfront works pre-construction will be covered to connect homes to the district heating network regardless of home type or occupier.

“The community heat network tackles big issues in a small place; to prevent fuel poverty, supply predictable energy prices, and protect the longevity and aesthetics of historic and listed buildings that give character to villages like Swaffham Prior”,  Says Emma Fletcher, Chair of the Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust  “For the village, the ability to tackle climate change is an added benefit of the heating project and a key driver for many people joining the scheme”.

Cambridgeshire County Council adopted its Climate Change and Environment Strategy this year with a priority to support the 10,000 rural households in Cambridgeshire dependent on oil to shift to renewables.  

“We have been working alongside the Swaffham Prior community for the last three years”, says Josh Schuman, Cambridgeshire County Councillor and Chair of the Environment and Sustainability Committee responsible for Climate Change and Energy Investment “This project tackles head on some of the big issues affecting our rural communities and is already inspiring other villages within the County to get involve and change their future. I am delighted that the County has the ability to help be part of that journey and turn great ideas into reality”.

Established in 2017, Heating Swaffham Prior is a collaboration between Cambridgeshire County Council and Swaffham Prior Community Land Trust. This partnership has worked together to secure funding via BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) Heat Network Delivery Unit and its Heat Network Investment Project Fund. Taking the project from a community concept to fully designed system comprising of ground source heat pumps (130 closed loop boreholes), air source, solar array and 7km network. The Council is using its land for the development of the energy centre and has match funded the key grants to allow the community to draw down the development funds. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority also contributed a grant early in the project. 

Funding has been used to engage with the local community and appoint technical consultants such as Bouygues Energy and Services Ltd (lead design engineers), Avieco (project managers), LineUndrawn (engagement and communications) and Sharpe Prichard LLP (legals). Funding in 2018 was also put into a 200m deep test bore hole to test the suitability of the village for a borehole array (pictured). 

The planning application for the district heating scheme was submitted in July 2020 and planning permission was awarded on 24th November 2020. Subject to final investment decisions, the project is due to start on site early in the New Year.