Blog: The Future of our Historic Buildings Depends on Government-Led Mobilisation

Director of Sustainability, Ed Green writes about how the future of heritage buildings is dependent on Government-led action

Ed Green, Director of Sustainability, Grosvenor Property UK

ImagineImagine if we get it right and find a way to transform our planet to be resilient to climate change. And what if we could hold on to a fundamental piece of our cultural identity, while ensuring it remains viable for future use? 

The UK is home to a rich and complex history, much of which has been encapsulated in the buildings we live, work, and play in. Over six million homes and a third of all commercial properties across the country today were built before 1919.  

But with this rich heritage comes an even richer challengeOur buildings account for roughly a fifth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions; and historic properties are the main culprit, largely due to poor insulationLondon’s homes and workplaces are responsible for 78% of the capital’s carbon emissions, rising to 86% for Westminster City Council where we have a huge concentration of heritage buildings.  

To stand a chance of hitting net zero by the 2050 deadline, the UK needs a concerted national approach to retrofitting. And we need both the private sector and government to be on this future-proofing mission.  

Obstacles to retrofitting 

At Grosvenor Property UK, we recently hit a significant milestone, having retrofitted a million square feet of our historic London estate. But this was no easy feat.  

Property owners and developers who opt to retrofit for the future of our planet, face significant barriers; cost being one of them. The expenditure associated with double-glazing windows, replacing gas boilers, and improving wall insulation, all whilst maintaining the property’s period character, can quickly add up Moreover, current building regulations are convoluted, leaving many property owners confused about what is expected of them 

And what about the skills needed to make these efficiencies? A serious lack of retrofit training and employment pathways means the UK will need to triple present rates of recruitment to meet the 2050 target.  

At a time when we need mass momentumall these factors mean we’re faced with widespread retrofitting inertia. 

New national policy  

So, let’s enshrine in law a national retrofit strategy that will take a holistic approach to skills, training, funding and advice for property owners. Only by simultaneously overcoming all obstacles can we ensure that our old buildings meet modern standards in the short time remaining 

Financial incentives and options that mobilise action at scale are especially important. There are clear international precedents we could emulate such as the US’ Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program which offers a 20% tax credit to encourage private sector investment in the refurbishment of historic buildings. Equalising VAT for new builds and retrofitting is another easy winMost industry professionals already recognise it is nonsensical to have a tax on new builds below that of retrofitted ones. 

At the foundation of all this, we need clear, transparent and universal retrofitting standards. Property owners and investors need certainty before spending money – who wants to spend money and time on submitting a plan to local authorities that might be rejected? 

When it comes to skills, we need to reform the Apprenticeship Levy to be more flexible and allow for unspent funds to be channelled into retrofit trainingEqually importantskills development must take place at a local level – tailored to the community’s needs and priorities  

A call for action 

The race to net zero is on. Our political leaders must act. We need to futureproof our historic buildings and the built environment sector alone cannot do it at the scale and pace requiredThat’s why Grosvenor supports long-term political commitment to a National Retrofit Strategy.  

If done right, we stand to gain more than reduced emissions. Economically, we could create as many as 290,000 jobs and generate £35 billion of annual outputFor property owners and tenants, energy bills would be better controlledAnd culturally, our unique architectural heritage would be preserved for generations to come. The case for action is undeniable. 

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