The Labour-led Exeter City Council has quietly been paving the way on climate action for years – quite literally, as Exeter’s new leisure centre, St Sidwell’s Point, demonstrates.
Passivhaus, which translates as ‘passive house’ from German, is a rigorously energy efficient model for housing. To gain Passivhaus certification, a building must meet high environmental standards and require little energy for heating or cooling.
St Sidwell’s Point, which opened in April 2022, has been built to Passivhaus standard, which is the first for a leisure centre of its kind in the UK. This is a big deal. Leisure centres are notorious for guzzling energy, as swimming pools are typically kept heated to 30ºC. Due to its Passivhaus design, St Sidwell’s Point uses 70% less energy use than a conventional centre and 50% less water. For comparison, a typical leisure centre uses 1,579kWh/m2/yr for gas and electricity, but St Sidwell’s Point has been built to use under 375kWh.
The centre doesn’t look like your typical hippy eco-endeavour, which is a good thing as it appeals to people from all backgrounds. It is in the easily accessible centre of town, and has three swimming pools, a sauna, hydro-bath, foot spa, hot beds, salt vapour room, bar, and roof terrace. The centre charges £25 a month for individual membership, which is almost half the average cost of gym membership (of £40/yr), and has a pay-as-you-go option for non-members.
Although Green Councillors argued that the £42m cost for the project was too high, due to the energy savings thanks to its Passivhaus design, St Sidwell’s Point will have a payback period of around only nine years.
Meanwhile, pools around the UK are now closing due to energy costs – as many as 100 facilities nationwide, where 62,000 children are taught to swim on a weekly basis. Bills at some sites have soared by more than £1 million a year since 2019. In terms of energy security, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels, building low carbon buildings is a no brainer.
Exeter City Council has also been building homes to Passivhaus standard since 2010 and is now retrofitting existing council housing to similar standards. Of the latter homes, over 60% of residents haven’t needed to switch on their heating since the homes were occupied. Exeter was acting on climate well before councils or even governments were declaring climate emergencies, with the primary motivation of reducing energy consumption and costs for residents. With so many Britons now being plunged into energy poverty, the importance of marrying social justice concerns with environmental aims has come to the fore. Climate action cannot leave behind our most disadvantaged and marginalised communities, particularly since they will feel the impacts of climate change the keenest. Their wallets especially must not be hit the hardest by climate action measures.
While we lack the Labour government that’s needed to get this country back on track, local councils can follow in Exeter’s footsteps in building low carbon buildings. Take a trip to St Sidwell’s Point – it offers a luxurious experience, for half the price of a conventional leisure centre, and without guzzling energy. People want to see climate action, but they don’t want to give up leisure activities, and nor should they have to. Exeter has shown that these can be provided at cost, without great cost to the environment. To quote an old poem: give us bread but give us roses. People need to be able to afford food and heat their homes in winter – something that has become much more difficult after 12 years of Tory government austerity – but they should be able to enjoy a swim and trip to the spa too.