Why are local councils’ green building ambitions being held back?

intext_housing-roz-blogThe post was first published on Business Green.

The prestigious Stirling Prize was recently awarded to Goldsmith Street, an imaginative, low carbon development of council houses built by Norwich City Council.

It would be fantastic to see developments like this multiply across the country in the push to provide more homes. But local authorities’ hands are tied when it comes to developments in their areas carried out by others. In fact, if they tried to mandate greener construction in future they could be breaking the law. The government has recently threatened to ban councils from exceeding national energy efficiency requirements for new homes. In the net zero era, this makes no sense.

Local climate emergency
In response to public demand, more than half of councils in England have declared a ‘climate emergency’ and are beginning to plan what to do about it. There is huge value in a local approach – we need action at all levels if we’re going to meet the net zero carbon goal set into law earlier this year, and local leaders face the impacts of climate change and decarbonisation first hand.

But if local climate plans across England are to endure and be cost effective they should be closely aligned with the local industrial strategies currently being drawn up, and avoid a regressive situation where the two approaches end up at odds. That means mitigating the risks associated with high carbon industries, such as car making or steel production. It also means making the most of all the emerging clean growth opportunities across sectors, from more efficient resource use to new foods.

Local ambition on green buildings are being held back
Construction is one of the sectors where councils have significant power and expertise to potentially drive this kind of clean growth. But only London has had the spatial planning powers to exceed national energy efficiency requirements since the 2016 zero carbon homes standard was removed. Other local authorities are in limbo, discouraged from going any further than the standards originally proposed in 2016.

This restriction, intended to make things simpler for developers, has dampened the market for energy efficient materials and limited the efficiency of new buildings, the vast majority of which will still be standing in 2050.

Our recent report, written with the think tank Localis, calls instead for more flexibility for local leaders to enable them to develop promising local strengths in construction and other sectors.

Construction lags behind on CO2 cuts
With fewer constraints, London has been able to race ahead on low carbon construction. While the new national standards being proposed for 2025 are significantly more ambitious on energy efficiency, they ignore another important issue that London has started to address which is the carbon footprint of building materials and construction processes. This is a vital consideration. Since 1990, there has been a 32 per cent reduction in the carbon emissions related to building use. But progress on embodied emissions, those generated in a building’s construction, has been very poor over the same period, with a cut of only six per cent.

There are real local opportunities here. For instance, timber is a relatively low carbon building material, if its use was encouraged it could be sourced locally through new forestry, which also has carbon reduction benefits. And more efficient offsite construction methods can be used, offering the possibility of new local job opportunities in the areas neighbouring big, growing cities.

Making better decisions about the materials we use and how we use them is a vital step in addressing climate change. Rather than suffocating local enthusiasm to go further and faster than national planning standards, government should be embracing the opportunity for local innovation in this and other sectors.

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