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Building homes to last – Prospect Magazine

Members of the UK’s first citizens’ assembly on climate change in Birmingham. The assembly acknowledged the importance of housing in meeting the UK’s emission targets. © Fabio De Paola/PA Archive/PA Images

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, was one of the six select committees that commissioned the citizens’ climate assembly last year. The assembly brought together more than 100 people from all walks of life and all shades of opinion to discuss how the UK can meet its legally binding target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We felt that due to the transformative impact that the consequences of climate change will have on our lives, and the significant changes to our lifestyles that may be needed to mitigate them, it was important that we had an understanding of public perspectives as we look to shape policy.

The findings of the climate assembly showed a keen understanding among the public of the importance of what we do in our homes for the fight against climate change. Homes account for 15 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, so reductions there will make a real difference to overall levels. The participants in the assembly called on the government to develop a long-term strategy, supported by investment and market innovation, that included scope for local communities to adopt strategies that worked best for their areas. They accepted that homes would need to be retrofitted to remove existing systems, such as gas heating, and replace them with new zero carbon solutions. The Committee will consider the work of the assembly when planning its future work programme.

The impact of the government’s waste strategy, and its prescriptive national approach to recycling, should serve as a valuable lesson as it develops future policy to address the UK’s carbon emissions. What works in one area may not be so successful in another and it will be vital to ensure public confidence is maintained if policy is going to have a meaningful impact on behaviour at home.

But the challenge is not just in how existing homes can be made more environmentally friendly. The country is in the middle of a housing crisis that will require significant numbers of new homes to be built, with the government setting a target of 300,000 per year. However, as recently as 2018, only one per cent of new homes were built to the highest Energy Performance Certificate standard, Band A. Ensuring new buildings are as energy efficient as possible and contain as many low carbon or carbon neutral systems as economically feasible at the time can play an important role in meeting the UK’s overall climate goals. Getting things right now will also reduce the need for potential retrofitting in the future.

The government should embrace every opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and be ambitious in setting carbon reduction targets for the built environment both during construction and use. Building regulations and planning guidance can be improved to ensure that new housing developments are more stringent in meeting energy performance targets. Modern methods of construction can also be better utilised, both in streamlining the production process and providing better housing systems, to reduce the overall carbon output. These may need more government support if they are to be better adopted in the building sector.

The public understanding of the need for serious action to combat climate change is there. It is clear, too, that there is a strong public appetite to meet the challenge and the government has the opportunity to develop policies based on voters’ confidence and consent. It is essential that the government seizes this opportunity and delivers the policy platform we need.

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.

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