Building places that work for everyone

In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May highlighted the plight of ordinary families ‘who can just about manage but worry about the cost of living’ or ‘who have their own home, but worry about paying the mortgage’.  And in her foreword to last month’s Housing White Paper she identified the ‘broken housing market’ as one of the biggest barriers to progress in Britain today.

Her concern is our concern too.  Mrs May knows that we urgently need to build new homes that are within reach of those being left behind.  We must reduce energy bills for those who are just about managing.  We must reduce the burden on the NHS by maximising the health and well-being of UK citizens.  And in a post-Brexit Britain we must create jobs, improve skills and grow our export opportunities. 

This is a vision that we share. And in our brand new paper, Building Places That Work for Everyone, we show how the built environment is already playing a key role in delivering on the Government’s aims.  We shine a spotlight on refurbishment projects that have delivered warmer, healthier homes and workplaces alongside significant fuel bill savings.  We show how high-quality design and smarter construction methods are already delivering new homes at scale and at speed.  And we demonstrate that the construction industry plays a crucial role in creating jobs, improving skills and growing our exports of cutting-edge products and services.

Let’s start with new buildings.  It is a common – but false – assumption that high-quality buildings take longer to build and are more expensive.  Offsite manufacture can substantially reduce construction waste and speed up delivery.  And well-designed developments, in which communities have had a real say, can sweep away planning objections – especially when they bring with them new amenities, green spaces and wildlife havens.   Take igloo Regeneration’s Dundas Hill development in Glasgow, which sailed through planning because of local community involvement in the development process right from the start. Delivering, sustainably, the numbers of new homes the country needs is well within our reach.

But it’s not just about new buildings. Around 80% of the buildings that will be occupied in in 2050 have already been built. If we are to meet our 2050 carbon target, we need to retrofit almost 25 million homes – that’s 1.4 homes every minute between now and 2050. Refurbishing homes can bring down bills for hard-pressed families; and for firms large and small more efficient use of energy frees up money to invest in the core business. A great example comes from Land Securities who over the past year have invested £2.6 million in energy reduction initiatives across 23 leading commercial and retail sites around the UK, saving customers 8.2 million kWh of energy, equal to £940,000 per annum. This includes Lewisham Shopping Centre, where lighting upgrades to LEDs will reduce landlord energy consumption by 20% - with benefits shared with customers including Marks & Spencer, Clarks and H&M.

We also mustn’t forget the health benefits of a well-designed, high-performing building.  A healthier, happier workforce means a more productive, successful business – it’s as simple as that.  Our members Skanska UK eliminated hazardous substances and made full use of natural daylight when rebuilding their Doncaster facility – leading to a more comfortable workplace and a huge drop in building-related sick days.  Meanwhile, in their landmark Boilers on Prescription pilot, social housing provider Gentoo provided energy efficiency upgrades for vulnerable residents.  The results were staggering: after 18 months GP appointments had decreased by 60%, and the project has generated widespread interest from healthcare professionals nationwide. 

These shining examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  And they show not just what might be possible in the future, but what is possible right now.  With the right combination of industry expertise, community engagement and a clear steer from Government, they can be the norm rather than the exception.

And I’m not the only one who is saying it.  It was standing room only when we launched our paper in Parliament on 28 February – and I was particularly thrilled by the welcome it received from Conservative politicians.  Our keynote speaker was Chair of the No. 10 Policy Board and Bright Blue supporter George Freeman MP.  He commended our ‘powerful, fact-based paper’, saying that it would be ‘really valuable in shaping policy’.  He highlighted how we must ‘build not yesterday’s boxes but tomorrow’s homes’ and mooted the interesting idea of rewarding local councils for delivering housing that uses less energy.  Meanwhile, another Bright Blue supporter James Heappey echoed George’s words, adding that truly sustainable homes can make people happier and healthier, reduce demand on the NHS and enable communities to be more cohesive.  Music to my ears!

So hopefully this is just the start of our new conversation with Government as we spread the word about the multiple benefits – social, economic and environmental – that high-quality buildings and neighbourhoods can deliver.  UK-GBC is uniquely placed to help Government achieve its vision in close partnership with the built environment industry whom we represent.  We look forward to working with them and all our partners to deliver on our shared vision – to build places that work for everyone.

Julie Hirigoyen is CEO of the UK Green Building Council

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue