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The role of the built environment in a green economic recovery

The built environment has a key role in supporting an environmentally friendly recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Senior Policy and Public Affairs Adviser Phoebe MacDonald outlines how the RIBA are lobbying UK government on this and what we are calling for.

16 July 2020

Phoebe MacDonald, RIBA Senior Policy and Public Affairs Adviser, outlines how the RIBA are lobbying UK government on role the built environment can have in supporting an environmentally friendly recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The built environment has a key role in supporting an environmentally friendly recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Around 40% of global carbon emissions stem from buildings. In the UK, 19% of carbon emissions come from heating buildings, 77% of which is attributable to heating homes. Improving the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock and ensuring new buildings do not negatively impact the environment is vital to stimulating investment and consumer spending, alongside creating jobs, improving the nation’s health and wellbeing and meeting our net zero targets.

The UK has the least energy efficient housing stock in Europe, and it is expected that 85% of existing stock shall remain in-use as of 2050. The government’s own target to bring all homes to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band C by 2035, “where practical, cost-effective and affordable”, equates to around 19 million homes to be retrofitted over the next 15 years.

However, we have been calling on government to adopt a greater ambition, including the development of clear policies as part of a ‘National Retrofit Strategy’. This strategy must include clear governance arrangements, targets, and a long-term action plan which identifies incentives and ringfences funding; improving energy efficiency of existing homes must become a national infrastructure priority.

This formed one of our key recommendations in responding to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry into the energy efficiency of existing homes. Earlier in the year, we urged the EAC to undertake this inquiry in our response to the their Possible Future Inquiries consultation.

Improving the energy efficiency of existing homes does not just benefit the environment, but reduces energy bills, increasing a households’ disposable income. It’s also a vital tool for addressing health inequalities. According to a report from the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group (EEIG), fuel poverty, poor maintenance and inappropriate housing are estimated to cost the NHS up to £2 billion each year.

Retrofitting homes also creates skilled employment opportunities. In places like the North East and West Midlands, where there are high levels of both unemployment and poorly insulated housing, it can also drive economic and social development.

One of the biggest barriers to progress beyond the lack of funding is the shallow pool of people with experience of this type of work. With young people likely to be disproportionally affected by the economic impact of coronavirus, investing in education and training for school leavers provides an opportunity for a highly skilled, well paid job. For existing employees, training on net zero construction and retrofit, for example, training to become a retrofit coordinator, provides an opportunity to upskill the workforce.

The government announcements last week on energy efficiency are a positive start. The Chancellor, in his summer economic statement, allocated £2 billion to improve the energy efficiency of 600,000 homes. However, this is just a drop in the ocean of the funding required to update the 19 million homes currently under EPC band C.

The good news is that there is a growing awareness within government that things need to change. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee inquiry into post-pandemic economic growth asked for views on how we can ensure that the UK has a green recovery. The RIBA's response highlighted the importance sustainable construction generally and need to ensure new buildings not negatively impact the environment. To achieve this, we recommended that operational energy should form the principal metric for measuring energy efficiency of buildings and that government should introduce operational energy and embodied carbon targets for buildings in-line with the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge.

The importance of Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) is also highlighted in our response. We continue to lobby for the government to not only promote and endorse POE but require POE as a condition of procurement of public funding for building projects. POE is essential for transparency of how public money is spent, but also provides data that can be shared and learnt from, allowing for continuous improvement of energy efficiency within the built environment.

Improving the energy efficiency of our building stock is positive for the health of our planet, the health of our economy and the health of our nation. The RIBA will continue to lobby the government on behalf of architects to ensure that the built environment is at the forefront of the green recovery.

View a list of the RIBA’s latest responses to government consultations and parliamentary inquiries.

Find out more information on the RIBA’s Professional Features on climate action and sustainability.

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