What can the property and construction worlds do about the great emergencies of our time: public health (particularly Covid), climate change, social exclusion, and the chronic housing shortage and poor housing quality exposed by Grenfell?

Robert Whitton Impact Capital chairman

Too many developers and contractors shy away from these big issues, believing that they are someone else’s problem.

In the case of the Grenfell fire, it has been shocking to see materials producers and professionals pass the buck instead of accepting their part in the tragedy. Liability is an issue of course, but the industry’s first obligation must be to build homes that are safe to live in.

While property and construction have rallied during Covid, helping the NHS and playing a vital role in distributing PPE and vaccines, the virus has shone a light on the poor, congested living conditions many people in big cities endure, and has also exposed the health risks and resilience of a traditional construction method that relies on high-intensity onsite labour.

The built environment and the construction industry are also the world’s biggest polluters: over 75% of UK citizens’ local councils have declared climate and ecological emergencies. The average UK household emits 2.7 tonnes of CO₂ every year from heating homes and, according to The Wildlife Trust, the UK is one of the worst places on the planet for wildlife to exist.

Air pollution has fallen slightly during the pandemic with fewer vehicles on the roads, but this will rise again, creating a public health risk ranking alongside cancer, heart disease and obesity. The onus is on all of us to save the planet for future generations. Therefore we must embrace the decarbonisation of housing too.

We also desperately need to address social exclusion: 7.4 million homes in England fail to meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard, and the Building Research Establishment estimates poor housing costs the NHS over £600m each year. Meanwhile, Shelter believes three million new social homes need to be built in England in the next 20 years to fix the housing crisis, 1.17 million of them for younger families who otherwise face a lifetime of sub-standard insecure, private renting.

2021 will be the year our built environment is revolutionised by sustainable design

But despite the severity of these emergencies, I am optimistic about the future. The pandemic has recalibrated values and priorities; 2021 will be the year that our built environment is revolutionised by sustainable design, off-site modular construction and clean energy technology, while the government’s green recovery agenda will advance progress toward a net-zero-carbon future.

Sustainable, modular-built homes can consume up to 67% less energy than traditional housing and are 30% to 50% faster to build than by traditional methods, so more homes can be built to accelerate toward meeting government targets for tackling deprivation and trying to improve social cohesion. Post-Covid, modular construction will also allow fewer people to work on site, as well as using safe materials that can be rigorously tested before being installed.

The property and construction industries need to reinvent themselves, embrace change, repurpose what is redundant and put sustainability, quality, safety and community at the fore.

We all need to rise to the challenge and create a great British property sector that makes the world green with envy.

Robert Whitton is founder and chief executive of Impact Capital