To deliver a sustainable, net zero future, the built environment needs a paradigm shift. We must channel our deep dismay at the government’s short-sighted rollback into a powerful, collective voice focused on the changes we need.
The government’s weakening of key green policies like insulating private rented homes, delaying biodiversity net gain, dissolving its own Energy Efficiency Taskforce and pushing back the end of gas boilers sent a chill through our sector.
For all the rhetoric about protecting people from costs, the numbers don’t add up. It is painfully clear that delaying action now will both keep people’s energy bills high in the short term and won’t deliver the major financial investments needed over the medium term. And not least, this extreme vacillation won’t help to recruit and train the hundreds of thousands of retrofit specialists needed, and won’t support homeowners and landlords to upgrade millions of cold, leaky, unhealthy homes across the UK.
While opposition party pledges read stronger than the incumbent’s, they’re way off the climate-redressing trajectory needed; and noises in their camp are amplifying about weakening their own promised green investment levels.
So while attention on protecting and enhancing green policy packages in manifestoes remains crucial, it’s even more important that wider business and civic society voices coalesce more than ever before, melding into a leviathan-like force to put forward that powerful collective voice, to shout into the political decision-making spaces. Fill that leadership lacuna with the investment commitments, innovations, policy frameworks and delivery exemplars to keep us on track.
After the recent policy omnishambles, 113 of Britain’s leading businesses and organisations from across the construction, property and financial sectors put their names to a UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak urging him to reconsider the rollback. It is a clear demonstration that the hard-won consensus of investing in sustainable homes, buildings, spaces, places and processes reaches far beyond Whitehall.
The UK is not moving towards net zero at the pace needed, a situation further imperiled by this governmental volte-face – reinforced by the Committee for Climate Change’s latest refrain about how far off track we are. These latest developments further underline that simply going faster won’t do the job. We need to do things differently.
Earlier phases of our net zero transition were devoted to ideating and innovating profoundly new technical solutions, identifying scalable solutions that work and developing robust, evidence-based targets to give industry a reliable pathway to follow. Much of the technology to permanently slash emissions and deliver smarter, more responsive homes and buildings not only exists, but is widely deployed in the mainstream. UKGBC’s landmark Whole Life Carbon Roadmap has made the route to net zero more accessible and tangible than ever before – giving the industry a common vision and trajectory to that 2050 net zero end-point.
But we are now in a completely different phase of the transition. Despite the narrative pushed by Downing Street, we in the industry already have – and operate within – a strong consensus about the ‘what’ of net zero solutions. We know what works and we know how to do it. What we lack is the will – political and otherwise – to invest in these proven solutions across the entire market and deliver them at speed and scale.
We need a paradigm shift that moves us beyond the questions of ‘what works’ and towards ‘how’ can we leverage our collective voice to forge and deeply support a political consensus that matches the one felt within the industry.
That means being bolder in rebutting the misconceptions and misinformation about how much net zero costs, and who will have to pay. That means reframing a nationwide drive to upgrade dangerously low-quality homes as one of the most financially sound investments any government could make in the UK’s future economy, prosperity, health and happiness. That means seizing the upcoming democratic moment to make our voice heard.
We need a range of voices from actors across the built environment, and beyond, of all sizes to pull together behind clear and compelling calls to action. Whether we’re coming together on the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard, ensuring an ambitious and science-led targets for homes of the future or helping to lower barriers to entry to the retrofit market, we need to seize the initiative in a way that draws investors from across the economy – financial and political.
Our sector may be in choppy political waters now, but if we pull together and pull hard, we can still help this and future governments to chart the right course on net zero. We just need to bloody get on with it.
Simon McWhirter is deputy chief executive at UK Green Building Council