“Give us the tools to ensure our past can be part of a truly sustainable future”

The Director General of the National Trust calls for policy change and other measures so historic buildings can help tackle the climate crisis

On 15 July 2021, Hilary McGrady, Director General of the National Trust addressed an event exploring the findings of our Heritage & Carbon paper, which called for a decisive reformulation of planning policy in the run-up to COP26. She said:

I’m delighted to be (virtually) here and I’m also really pleased that we’re having this debate.

Climate change represents the single greatest threat to the Trust and the special places we look after.

From flooding to wildfires, we’re already feeling the impacts – and we’re committed to play our part in tackling it.

Last year we committed to reaching net zero by 2030, and we’re looking at everything from our supply chain to locking in carbon by restoring our peatland and of course - planting trees – some 20 million of them.

But while all of this work is of course important and often attracts headlines, the truth of the matter is that our buildings and let estate are our 4th largest source of emissions. In addition to the grand estates we are best known for, we also own some 5,000 domestic buildings across the country, the vast majority of them built before 1919.

Many of them aren’t listed either – but they are just as much part of our heritage. They represent that connection with the past on our doorstep, and they are homes full of character.

So our fundamental challenge is how to retain the architectural beauty and often historical significance of these places while at the same time, delivering on our commitment to get to net zero.

But the reason that we are here having this debate is because we are not alone in this challenge.

Every city, town and village has its own portfolio of buildings that help create the sense of place, bring beauty and depth to the built environment in which we want people to live and thrive. So this is a problem common to all of us and one we need to work together to address.

The good news though is that, based on our experience, change is possible. We believe it is entirely possible to retain the historic fabric and integrity of our buildings but still achieve ambitious energy and carbon targets 

Historic buildings are adaptable – by definition they’ve had to be to stand the test of time.

We have had multiple success stories across the Trust’s portfolio that prove it can be done

In less than ten years we have installed over 145 renewable heating systems, including 71 heat pumps. This has removed over 900,000 litres of heating oil stored at our places.  We’ve also built 31 micro hydro power systems that generate green electricity.

On energy efficiency, we have completed about 1,500 energy reduction projects on our in-hand estate alone since 2018 (and many before that). Around half of these relate to improving the thermal efficiency of our buildings - insulation, draught proofing, window improvements and so on - with the other half focussing on power – principally lighting improvements.

Taken together, our energy strategy has meant that we have reduced the carbon intensity of our heat and power by about 45% against a 2009/10 baseline.

While we are extremely proud of these achievements they have been hard won - and at times it feels like we are literally pushing water up hill when the policy environment should be helping us to do more.


Our experience on the ground has shown that there are 3 key barriers to achieving better outcomes:

The first is the need for clearer policy direction on dealing with traditional buildings.

The Trust works across local authority lines on the planning system, and our teams find the approach to adapting traditional buildings varies from authority to authority.

Some are keen to prioritise climate issues and explore solutions for these buildings, others simply don’t have the expertise or the confidence.  This adds complexity and time to applications on all sides and results in different standards being delivered.

National clarity and strong leadership from the Government would help local authorities deliver to a consistent set of expectations.

As we consider again the role of the planning system, and in the run up to COP – we have a clear opportunity to make that better. Revising the NPPF would be a simple change but would send a strong signal that planning has a role to play in addressing climate change.

A second barrier is the simple but very real issue of cost.

Upgrading and decarbonising buildings is expensive – and historic buildings often even more so due to their complex and individual nature. This additional cost may be justifiable on a large scale or for especially significant buildings, but it becomes much less attractive the more commercially viable the scheme needs to be.

As we learn more about ways to capture carbon and recognise that retention of buildings is often better than new build, it is time to challenge why future-proofing traditional buildings has the added burden of VAT – yet demolition and new build– which destroys embedded carbon - is exempt?

When we are seeking ways to encourage developers to not only retain these important buildings but importantly to refurbish them well, VAT exemption could be a really important incentive  

Thirdly and finally, while we applaud the intent behind regulatory standards, we find time and time again that they are designed with assumptions based on modern buildings.

This one size fits all approach results in standard recommendations that are often inappropriate or ineffective for traditional homes – and at worse can cause damage to health and heritage.

EPC’s for example are a case in point. With their model based on a modern home, they just don’t work for historic buildings as currently designed, causing inconsistent assessments and unsuitable recommendations:

In Wales we have a pre-1919 property that has had three EPC assessments:

  • In 2015 it scored 51 – an E
  • In 2016 it dropped down to 28 – an F
  • And finally in 2018 it was rated 42 – an E again.

That’s a range of 23 points – for a property where no work was undertaken! Yet it is this score that will determine whether someone can make this place their home or not.

This also speaks to a wider issue: having the skills and knowledge in the sector to understand traditional buildings.

We need to ensure the planning system – particularly local authorities – has the ability and capacity to understand the specific challenges and appropriate solutions to upgrade historic buildings sensitively and sustainably.

And then alongside this we also need an industry and supply chain that can deliver these solutions.

We are hopeful

I want however to end on a positive note.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. The Trust has and will continue to find ways to drive our carbon footprint to net zero, and our historic buildings will be at the heart of that.

Our ask of some of you is that you give us the tools to ensure our past so beautifully expressed in the historic fabric of our cities, towns and villages can be part of a truly sustainable future.

Find out more about the National Trust is tackling climate change here.

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