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The Past, Present and Future of Sustainability

The UK’s approach to sustainability has taken a few twists and turns, so what’s changing, where is it going and what should the construction industry consider?

The UK has been one of the world leaders in working towards more sustainable commitments. However, in the last few years its attitudes have taken a few twists and turns. For those trying to work within regulatory guidelines, that can make things a little complicated. So, how are things changing and what can we expect in the future?

The Past, Present and Future of Sustainability

The UK’s approach to sustainability has taken a few twists and turns, so what’s changing, where is it going and what should the construction industry consider?

The UK has been one of the world leaders in working towards more sustainable commitments. However, in the last few years its attitudes have taken a few twists and turns. For those trying to work within regulatory guidelines, that can make things a little complicated. So, how are things changing and what can we expect in the future?

For James Blackburn, owner of Carbon Green Consulting, construction companies will have to work harder to stay up to date with the regulations and keep on top of their sustainability goals.

“I think more and more now they’ve got to start to think about getting the likes of us involved earlier because local authorities’ expectations of sustainable development are becoming keener,” he says, “and to get us involved early means we can help shape the development and the it’s design to demonstrate sustainability to local authorities.”

A renewed focus

The biggest change in the last 12 months has been an apparent roll back of 2015 government requirements which stripped local councils of the power to set their own targets over and above the building regulations.

“The Government has been so set on simply building, they’ve cut any of those sustainability requirements because of the cost to house builders, he says, “but now because they’re under pressure to deliver on climate change, they are now being pushed to do something more in terms of reducing CO2 emissions in buildings.”

The 2015 move has now been qualified with the Government’s 2018 revision of the National Planning Policy Framework following a consultation period. The revised framework now states that any new developments should be planned in a way that can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whether that’s through its location, orientation or design.

In their reply to the consultation, The Government acknowledged that its position on allowing local authorities to set higher energy requirements had become a sticking block. The new framework has removed any suggestion that it might prevent local authorities from using their existing powers under the Planning and Energy Act 2008. This means that local authorities can, if they choose, take action and that’s exactly what many of them are doing.

“The Government,” adds James, “remains committed to delivering the clean growth mission to halve the energy use of new builders by 2030.”

As a result, many local authorities are picking up the baton and setting their own frameworks for driving down CO2 emissions further.

The success of the London Plan may have played an important role. It showed how companies could build low, or zero carbon buildings, while still preserving their profit margins.

“Historically, London has always led the way,” he says “and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s happened.  London’s demonstrated that it can happen and developers are still building and they’re still achieving their profits. So, it may well be a factor.”

What it means for clients

In general, the expectations of local authorities are becoming much keener, but this is not happening across the board. Because authorities are being given more autonomy, much will depend on the attitude and awareness of individual councils. Those with a strong background in sustainability will be more likely to demand tougher requirements. This could complicate the landscape and construction firms will find themselves having to understand and comply with, a range of new regulations at the local – as well as national – level. This is why he believes a consulting firm such as his has a key role to play.

By getting in touch with them early, firms can understand the requirements and find ways to achieve their strategic goals while still complying with a stricter, and more demanding, regulatory environment.

What happens next?

The obvious question is: ‘where is this going and what is going to happen next?’ It’s not an easy question to answer thanks mainly to a host of different factors, such as who forms the next government, and whether policies shift towards climate change or construction.

The Government has recently announced its intention to construct thousands of new homes across the country as local authorities receive more powers to borrow in order to increase the housing stock. However, with funds still being extremely tight, this may create inevitable conflicts between the drive for sustainability and the need to increase the housing stock.

The spectre of Brexit, as always, creates further uncertainty. As we hurtle towards the deadline of March 2019, we still seem no closer to knowing what our future relationship with the EU will be like. The EU’s sustainability targets are among the most ambitious in the world and cutting lose from that would see the UK able to set its own regulations. However, the UK seems to be broadly aligned with the EU’s goals so it’s fair to say we will continue to travel down this similar road.

To Blackburn that could see the UK revert to the position it was back in 2012.

“With a crystal ball, I think we are going to revert  to some degree to where we were five, six years ago,” he says. “So, using sustainability certifications to deliver on the local sustainability agenda because they’re relatively straightforward ready made policy approaches to deliver for local authorities, they may  say, ‘Okay, that’s our policy,’ rather than reinventing the wheel.”

He points to the ‘Home Quality Mark’ for which CGC has certified assessors. 

“I think the Home Quality Mark will become policy for a number of local authorities and that will automatically set energy targets, CO2 targets, targets for various sustainability elements – which would, as I suggest, satisfy local authorities,” he adds.

The direction of the Government’s Sustainability Agenda, therefore, has been something of a moveable feast in recent years. However, there does seem to be a renewed drive towards sustainability with local authorities upping their demands for construction companies to increase the energy efficiency ratings of their projects.

For James Blackburn, owner of Carbon Green Consulting, construction companies will have to work harder to stay up to date with the regulations and keep on top of their sustainability goals.

“I think more and more now they’ve got to start to think about getting the likes of us involved earlier because local authorities’ expectations of sustainable development are becoming keener,” he says, “and to get us involved early means we can help shape the development and the it’s design to demonstrate sustainability to local authorities.”

A renewed focus

The biggest change in the last 12 months has been an apparent roll back of 2015 government requirements which stripped local councils of the power to set their own targets over and above the building regulations.

“The Government has been so set on simply building, they’ve cut any of those sustainability requirements because of the cost to house builders, he says, “but now because they’re under pressure to deliver on climate change, they are now being pushed to do something more in terms of reducing CO2 emissions in buildings.”

The 2015 move has now been qualified with the Government’s 2018 revision of the National Planning Policy Framework following a consultation period. The revised framework now states that any new developments should be planned in a way that can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whether that’s through its location, orientation or design.

In their reply to the consultation, The Government acknowledged that its position on allowing local authorities to set higher energy requirements had become a sticking block. The new framework has removed any suggestion that it might prevent local authorities from using their existing powers under the Planning and Energy Act 2008. This means that local authorities can, if they choose, take action and that’s exactly what many of them are doing.

“The Government,” adds James, “remains committed to delivering the clean growth mission to halve the energy use of new builders by 2030.”

As a result, many local authorities are picking up the baton and setting their own frameworks for driving down CO2 emissions further.

The success of the London Plan may have played an important role. It showed how companies could build low, or zero carbon buildings, while still preserving their profit margins.

“Historically, London has always led the way,” he says “and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s happened.  London’s demonstrated that it can happen and developers are still building and they’re still achieving their profits. So, it may well be a factor.”

What it means for clients

In general, the expectations of local authorities are becoming much keener, but this is not happening across the board. Because authorities are being given more autonomy, much will depend on the attitude and awareness of individual councils. Those with a strong background in sustainability will be more likely to demand tougher requirements. This could complicate the landscape and construction firms will find themselves having to understand and comply with, a range of new regulations at the local – as well as national – level. This is why he believes a consulting firm such as his has a key role to play.

By getting in touch with them early, firms can understand the requirements and find ways to achieve their strategic goals while still complying with a stricter, and more demanding, regulatory environment.

What happens next?

The obvious question is: ‘where is this going and what is going to happen next?’ It’s not an easy question to answer thanks mainly to a host of different factors, such as who forms the next government, and whether policies shift towards climate change or construction.

The Government has recently announced its intention to construct thousands of new homes across the country as local authorities receive more powers to borrow in order to increase the housing stock. However, with funds still being extremely tight, this may create inevitable conflicts between the drive for sustainability and the need to increase the housing stock.

The spectre of Brexit, as always, creates further uncertainty. As we hurtle towards the deadline of March 2019, we still seem no closer to knowing what our future relationship with the EU will be like. The EU’s sustainability targets are among the most ambitious in the world and cutting lose from that would see the UK able to set its own regulations. However, the UK seems to be broadly aligned with the EU’s goals so it’s fair to say we will continue to travel down this similar road.

To Blackburn that could see the UK revert to the position it was back in 2012.

“With a crystal ball, I think we are going to revert  to some degree to where we were five, six years ago,” he says. “So, using sustainability certifications to deliver on the local sustainability agenda because they’re relatively straightforward ready made policy approaches to deliver for local authorities, they may  say, ‘Okay, that’s our policy,’ rather than reinventing the wheel.”

He points to the ‘Home Quality Mark’ for which CGC has certified assessors. 

“I think the Home Quality Mark will become policy for a number of local authorities and that will automatically set energy targets, CO2 targets, targets for various sustainability elements – which would, as I suggest, satisfy local authorities,” he adds.

The direction of the Government’s Sustainability Agenda, therefore, has been something of a moveable feast in recent years. However, there does seem to be a renewed drive towards sustainability with local authorities upping their demands for construction companies to increase the energy efficiency ratings of their projects.

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