21 July, 2020

The government’s planned £5bn investment in homes and infrastructure is a firm indication of its desire to stimulate the economy and help get the country back to work in the wake of what we all hope is the passing of the pandemic. The spirt of Roosevelt’s New Deal has been summoned but is this programme a Green deal too? 

The Prime Minister’s statement immediately and perhaps predictably prompted a wide range of responses which coalesced around two questions. Firstly, was this investment new money at all and secondly was it being aimed at the right targets? By describing this stimulus as an intensification of a manifesto pledge, the Prime Minister probably answered the first question himself although the plan to move quicker and spend money faster is at least new. 

What place is there for sustainability in this major investment into the built environment? The Prime Minister has promised to ‘build better and build greener’, affirming at the same time his government’s commitment to plant more than 30,000 hectares of trees each year and spend £40 million on conservation projects. That’s a relatively modest objective given the scale of environmental risk we face. There is however the Green Homes Grant, a nod to the original manifesto pledge to spend £9.2bn to improve energy efficiency in low income housing and the public estate. 

The Green lobby has argued strongly that investment should go to improving the existing housing stock. The Association for Decentralised Energy points out that by 2050 around 80% of the UK’s population will be living in housing that already exists today.

In a letter sent to the Prime Minister on 1st June a large group of British business and industry leaders urged the government to adopt a low carbon growth and environmental improvement strategy targeting investment at low carbon innovation in industry and infrastructure, supporting sectors most capable of sustainable growth and decarbonisation, and helping businesses with strategies aligned with national climate goals. Looking specifically at the built environment the UK Green Building Council recommended that investment be directed at a more rigorous compliance regime for new buildings aligned with the climate objective of achieving net zero, retrofitting existing homes and a focus on biodiversity and climate resilience. The former, at the very least, seems to be at odds with the more relaxed regulatory environment the Government believes would be necessary to accelerate the pace of development.

This new approach to stimulating investment has been signalled by some relaxation of the planning regime. It starts with changes to the permitted development rules allowing, for example, commercial buildings to be changed to residential use without consent, fewer controls on upward residential extensions and quicker consents for the redevelopment of redundant buildings into homes. A fundamental review of the entire system is in the pipeline too, as planning in the UK is being increasingly characterised by the government as being no longer fit for purpose. No one would argue how important it is to restart the economy since all our livelihoods and welfare rely on it, but planning is the tool we use to implement sustainability policies, so relaxation or deregulation will ring alarm bells in many quarters. Whilst the need for a rapid bounce back is seen as critical to saving jobs and businesses, it needs to be tempered with the longer-term risk of hurried or expedient decision making. Seen in that context sustainability objectives seem to be especially vulnerable.

It would be an over-simplification to paint this as a straight choice between recovery and sustainability because they can go hand in hand. As the UKGBC suggests it’s a question of directing investment towards sectors and agencies able to lead on decarbonisation and sustainable growth. It isn’t a lone voice. Our clients come to CBRE to find the means of investing, developing and occupying buildings in a responsible way. The increasing importance of corporate ESG is putting the climate crisis firmly at the heart of all property strategies and the pandemic, for all its tectonic impacts, hasn’t changed the magnitude of the task of addressing climate change. 

It has however been a point of reflection. For all the loss and hardship, it’s given many of us the chance to breathe cleaner air, discover that we don’t need to commute to be able work effectively, rediscover a love of cycling on roads used by few cars and make the most of we have already without needing more. Now the world is slowly beginning to turn again we have a choice. Reset exactly as we were before or do something different. It’s clear it can never be like it was before, we’ve been too changed for that. Restarting the economy is an enormous opportunity to take a different direction, to embrace sustainability and put it firmly at the heart of everything we do so it becomes a defining quality. If Covid and Brexit aren’t big enough disruptors to make us change tack then nothing is. It’s time for governments to forget about the right political decision and just make the right decision. Not build, build, build, but build back better!