Consensus erupts on heritage and climate change


GBI’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Matt Bell, reflects on a public debate about heritage and carbon and a cross-sector campaign helping create Net Zero Britain.

Just as it seemed that normality was returning, an unseemly consensus appears to have settled on the worlds of heritage and property. Almost everyone thinks we need to make historic buildings energy efficient.

At an event which followed the launch of a new report, leading figures from Westminster, Whitehall, real estate and the historic environment appeared to be pretty much of one mind. Creating ‘net zero Britain’ will not happen unless heritage plays its part, said Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. Joanna Averley, the Government’s Chief Planner, called for a mix of ‘art, science and craft’ to help adapt our built environment for an age of climate change.

Meanwhile, Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust, reflected the commonality of views by describing this as ‘less a debate, more like a campaign’. She described climate change as the single biggest threat to the Trust and reiterated their commitment to achieve Net Zero Carbon by 2030.

The report itself, neatly summarised by Cordula Ziedler of Insall Architects, describes why the current system doesn’t work. It’s a familiar story to many people. Planning decisions are made case-by-case because the guidance & policy is open to interpretation. Policy, guidance and the regs are not consistent which generates mixed outcomes. In some instances, carbon reduction and energy efficiency are understood primarily as a threat rather than a public benefit; and the research and guidance that does exist is often very good but it’s dispersed and hard to access.

So what can we all do? In a series of polls during the event, a group of more than 150 delegates were asked where they thought the solutions lay. The top two answers were planning reform and equalisation of VAT from a list of six options, taking over 50% of the vote. These were followed by investment in skills and an overhaul of Energy Performance Certificates.

Clearly, planning policy is not going to solve this on its own. But unless we get the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) right, there is no common direction of travel. That is why Grosvenor, Peabody, The Crown Estate and other partners behind the report have called for national policy to be revised in a way that allows local decision-making to become much more consistent and progressive.

They want to see a new NPPF clearly connect climate change policy (the existing Chapter 14) and heritage protection (Chapter 16) and explicit encouragement in policy for carbon reduction measures for all designated heritage assets, excluding Scheduled Monuments.

Delegates were also asked if they were concerned that this would harm historic buildings. On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 high), 65% rated their concern as 5 or less. (This was not an anxious bunch).

Now in truth, it’s perfectly reasonable to have some concerns. Heritage assets are precious. The challenge here is not just to do the work but do it well - we have to apply intelligent appropriate solutions to make historic buildings energy efficient.

That also illustrates the importance of investing in skills across the entire supply chain. The point was made that there are over 100,000 businesses licensed to install gas boilers across England but just 1,200 qualified to install heat pumps. A small window on a big challenge!

But perhaps what came across most at this event was the appetite for change. COP looms. California’s burning. And yet the pace of retrofit, as Philip Dunne remarked, is ‘painfully slow’.

People want to act.  We want to protect both our heritage and the environment.  We want to ensure that our past, in the words of Hilary McGrady, ‘so beautifully expressed in the historic fabric of our cities, towns and villages, can be part of a truly sustainable future’.

There is still time to make submissions to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into Sustainability & the Built Environment here. For further information, please contact Philip Dunne.

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