As part of the emergency budget (or “Growth Plan”) announced by the UK Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng on 23rd September, property and infrastructure projects inEngland are set for significant changes designed – to use the Government’s own language – to “minimise the burden of environmental assessments.”
Whilst it’s easy for some to see this as a cash-driven betrayal of net zero principles, the reality is more nuanced. The changes favour the increased production of renewable energy through wind farms, for example, and also give financial support to the poorest households to enable them to benefit from insulation and other energy efficiency measures.
So, if these changes are not black or white, must it necessarily be the case that they are not green? And do they potentially even hide new opportunities for green building projects going forward?
Clarity needed – but positives possible
The changes look, at present, to be focused purely on assessments at a macro-environmental level – landscape, biodiversity, and so forth. These are the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) that typically apply to large infrastructure and property development projects.
And whilst these considerations are indeed environmentally critical, it is noteworthy that the Growth Plan does not once reference building-level environmental assessments such as EPCs.
In short, we (and our clients) are left wondering where the changes will come (if at all) to the way we assess and measure a building’s environmental performance, and how we design and build to optimise it.
But the possibilities for those changes to combine a reduction in red tape with significant gains in energy efficiency and carbon reduction are actually, potentially, both exciting and beneficial to our business.
Here’s what we think the changes need to – and could – deliver.
Planning, but greener
Too often, planning decisions trump energy efficiency and sustainability considerations – and there is a real opportunity now for changes to environmental assessment legislation at a per-building level to cut through the planning obstacles, and support smarter, greener, longer-term planning decisions.
Take the example of air source heat pumps, or photovoltaic (PV) cells for solar power on a roof or in an adjoining field. Both of these can significantly reduce a building’s net energy consumption, but they are often rejected by planners on aesthetic or similar grounds.
Simplifying environmental assessment legislation could give local Councils a clear mandate to enforce energy efficiency priorities on planners, which would in turn accelerate the adoption of greener building methods.
Likewise, simplifying the environmental legislation and clarifying its primacy in this way could, potentially, move planning to a greener position on innovative architectural and construction features needed to deliver:
• Next-generation electricity supply – Suitable not only for a move to more energy-efficient heating but also for electric vehicle charging.
• Thermal efficiency - Not just focusing on the need to reduce heating use, but tackling associated requirements like cross-ventilation, to stop overheating and reduce the need for cooling (both of which are wasteful of energy).
• Water use - Installation of exclusively low water-use showers, taps, and toilets, to minimise water consumption and therefore the energy expended by the water industry in processing it.
Green behaviour works best when it’s brought within workable reach of everybody – and we believe Councils and planners are entitled to participate in it too.
What will the changes really deliver?
Clearly, none of us have a crystal ball, and it may perhaps be that the proposed changes to environmental assessments stay initially at the level of EIS and SEA, rather then filtering down to the level of individual buildings’ sustainability characteristics.
But given that the UK still, despite the changes announced in the budget, has a legally binding commitment to reach net zero by 2050, yet at the same time plans to build 300,000 homes per year in England alone by the mid-2020s - as well as many new commercial buildings - it seems unlikely that our sector will not come under environmental assessment scrutiny soon, if only for economic reasons.
And from those economic jaws, we can, potentially snatch environmental victory.
To find out more about how we can help you with green building projects, call us on 01992 552111 or email email@example.com