This week we learned who will shoulder the perhaps unenviable task of leading the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC). Architect Smith Mordak will take over from outgoing chief executive Julie Hirigoyen in June, at a time when the industry’s hunger for leadership in sustainability has never been more intense.

Lem Bingley

Lem Bingley

Mordak will have their work cut out. Almost everyone responsible for developing, managing, selling, buying, valuing or revamping buildings is fully aware of the need to factor sustainability into everyday decision making. But the proportion of our industry who know exactly what they’re doing in this area is substantially smaller, I’d bet.

The UKGBC is in pole position to pool knowledge, educate the sector’s many different stakeholders, and lobby government for incentives and realistic regulations that might lead our industry in the right direction. This, is something it wants and needs to do to achieve sustainability targets, as evidenced by the British Property Federation’s latest report.

It’s probably fair to say that work is uphill, despite the UK’s legal commitment to net zero. UKGBC’s head of policy of and public affairs, Louise Hutchins, told the recent Property Week Climate Crisis Summit about the difficulties of influencing Whitehall.

“I was called into a hastily arranged industry roundtable with BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy] last week,” she said. “The senior officials […], they get it, but in terms of ministerial commitment to act, we’re just not seeing it.”

She added: “We think the planning system needs to be overhauled so that it’s all brought in line with environmental and climate targets, rather than pulling against [them]. Right across the country, perverse decisions are being made on planning and planning reform is going through parliament – it’s a huge opportunity and we’re not seeing it being grasped. It feels like policy has gone into the deep freeze.”

Many of the those perverse decisions concern properties in conservation areas. Almost nine out of 10 (87%) of historic building owners say the planning system and heritage rules are a major barrier to decarbonising assets.

At the summit, Matthew Bonning-Snook of developer Helical talked about the kinds of technologies new buildings employ to improve sustainability. “We have an automated intelligent dynamic water management system linked to real-time weather, so we know when it’s going to rain, and we know how full the storage facilities are,” he said, adding that this system can cut mains water usage by more than two-thirds. He also outlined smart heating and ventilation systems that respond to building usage in real time.

Obtaining permission to retrofit these kinds of measures into a listed building would, one suspects, induce plenty of grey hairs.

Andy Creamer, operating strategy and performance director at Grosvenor, told delegates 95% of its portfolio is in a conservation area and about 40% is listed, which cause challenges. “There are limitations in terms of what we can do with those properties, but technologies [like] air handling are things that we can implement.”

Given permission, of course.

There are plenty of things wrong with the planning system, many of which are intractable. But the need for a presumption in favour of sustainability improvements seems clear cut, and long overdue.