It’s time to enlist historic buildings in climate action

All great political and economic revolutions are achieved through a combination of 'Big Bang' - the wow, if you will - and evolutionary developments in society. The Storming of the Bastille was the culmination of a huge societal shift experienced in France over many decades, for example. Big Bang plus incremental change.

It’s time to enlist historic buildings in climate action

The same has to be true if Britain’s drive to net zero is to become reality. For every flashy,  new architect-designed net zero emissions development there will need to be insulation and double-glazing fitted on an 1850s terrace.

Which is where Grosvenor comes in. We want to throw the spotlight on a huge opportunity for the Government to drive major reductions to our carbon footprint – one that’s unlikely to make big national headlines but will make a massive long-term difference nonetheless.

So what is this opportunity? The adaptation and retrofit of hundreds of thousands of historic buildings across England to make them as energy efficient as possible. Done well – and with architectural sensitivity – it could have a huge impact.

Making all listed buildings and the dwellings in conservation areas as energy efficient as possible could cut operational carbon emissions nationwide by up to 7.7 MtC02 per year, equivalent to 5% of the UK’s carbon emissions associated with all buildings in 2019.

It would also act as a powerful stimulus to the green economy and help protect a crucial part of our common heritage, which gives so many people a sense of pride and identity. 

It sounds simple. Sadly, it’s a little more complicated than that: not because we don’t know how to make older buildings more energy efficient but because the lack of clarity and incoherence of planning laws and building regulations make it incredibly hard to get permission for making the changes.

So we’re calling on the Government to use the impetus of its high-profile planning reforms this year and the impending COP26 summit to align heritage protection and environmental sustainability much more closely in a new National Planning Policy Framework, and include policies for carbon reduction in relation to all designated heritage assets, excluding scheduled ancient monuments.

We believe these changes should be developed in parallel with other measures including skills and training programmes, funding for non-profit organisations to retrofit historic buildings, equalisation of VAT on repairs with those for new build, an overhaul of Energy Performance Certificates, and support for more and better guidance on what works.

The positive reception we’ve had to this report tells me that we’re onto something, that we are perhaps about to reach a moment in time when something transformational can be done in this important area.

There will, of course, be voices who say that the risk is too great or the sector too small for the Government to adopt our recommendations.

But they would be wrong. Not only does the urgency of climate change mean that we should be prepared to think again about how we approach the world around us, but such an attitude also fundamentally misunderstands our relationship with this country’s many wonderful older buildings.

The fact is that the 21% of England’s domestic building stock that pre-dates 1919 and the 500,000 listed buildings in England have adapted successfully many times to meet the needs of the next generation.

Just look at how much sound and fury surrounded the requirement to adapt older buildings when disabled access was mandated by law a little over a decade ago. The changes that people feared back then now look like they have been in place forever and crucially, they have made historic buildings and public places inclusive in a way that now seems completely natural.

In many ways the same goes for the reforms that Grosvenor is now calling for. People love living and working amongst our history, the connection it provides with the past and the character and atmosphere it provides to the present.

But increasingly everyone is also aware that we are staring down the barrel of climate disaster and that every part of society is going to have to do its bit if we are to avoid catastrophe. What value is a 19th Century town hall if it becomes un-useable?

Now is surely the time to enlist historic buildings in the battle against climate change so we can preserve their heritage and use and celebrate these buildings into the future as we strive to reach net-zero before it’s too late.

Grosvenor is hosting a webinar to discuss our proposals alongside the Director General of the National Trust, the Chief Planner from MHCLG and others on July 15. Register here.

Tor Burrows is the Executive Director – Sustainability and Innovation for Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.

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