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BEST PRACTICE - THE KNOWLEDGE

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The Solaris eco-centre means visitors can leave Blackpool with more than the obligatory stick of rock, says Kath Bu...
The Solaris eco-centre means visitors can leave Blackpool with more than the obligatory stick of rock, says Kath Burke

COUNCIL Blackpool BC

AWARD LGC Awards 2006

CATEGORY Winner, environment

SPONSOR Serco

Kiss-me-quick hats, fish'n'chips, ballroom dancing they're what Blackpool is famous for. But the resort is also earning a reputation for green living through a flagship eco-centre on the south promenade.

The Solaris centre, two miles south of the town centre, was created from a derelict 1930s art deco solarium.

The£1.8m venue showcases excellence in sustainability. Since opening in June 2004, it has attracted more than 60,000 visitors, bringing in£1.4m of sales, and safeguarding an estimated£1.9m of income for Blackpool through environmental and nature exhibitions and by providing a hub for community and business activities.

Blackpool may not have the weather to match the Costa del Sol, but Solaris makes a virtue out of wet and windy conditions. It boasts two wind turbines in the front garden and a greywater recycling system that uses rainwater to clean the solar-panelled roof and for flushing the toilets.

Under-floor heating, excellent insulation and a mini combined heat and power plant all help ensure energy efficiency. On hot, windy days the centre even sells electricity to the national grid.

The main entrance hall displays interactive exhibitions on the benefits of sustainable technology - as told by cartoon characters to make the green message appealing to children. The combined heat and power plant burns gas to produce up to five and a half kilowatts of electricity and a stripped down version is on display in the hall. The roof produces up to eight kilowatts using panels incorporated into an attractive glass roof.

Solaris' comfortable surroundings have made it a favourite with local business people for meetings, and it provides a home for four business start-ups, a community recycling project, environmental groups and an environmental consultancy service.

At weekends a theatre, dance and drama school uses the centre.

Project and service development manager Ross Fielding is surprised at how popular the concept has proved with local people.

'It's very rare that you're involved in something that doesn't attract criticism but there's been no serious criticism at all - nothing but support from the community users,' he says. 'And that ensures that it will keep going.'

Outside, the team has created 12 artificial habitats in the grounds around the centre for children to see how plants grow. These include a root system encased in perspex, plus an alpine rockery. Unfortunately, plans to produce a forest zone around the entrance were scuppered by a particularly wet and windy winter on one of the UK's most exposed coasts.

Despite this minor hiccup, the public have been loyal in coming to the centre, which is a regional resource for sustainable communities, enjoying close links with Lancaster University's environmental centre. Visitors can gather information on grants to help them make their houses more eco-friendly, such as installing wind turbines in their gardens, solar panels on their roofs or heat pumps in the ground.

'People do get inspired and they ask questions. Our challenge is to keep the project interesting - keep it new so they will come back,' says Mr Fielding.

The centre is also working on green ideas for the famous Blackpool Illuminations.

'We've got people looking at low energy illuminations, and renewable energy to power them. The illuminations have been reducing their energy consumption for several years,' says Mr Fielding. 'If Blackpool can do it - then the whole region can do it.'

So is there a chance that the legendary seafront illuminations will be run by wind or wave power in future? 'Watch this space,' says Mr Fielding.

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