The cabinet reshuffle and hosting of COP26 are two major events this season that form part of the UK’s longer race towards a different future, says Sadie Morgan
So far, 2021 has been a year of transition, ushering us from the global shock of the pandemic into a way of life that is both familiar and completely different. Despite this hybrid condition, some things remain unchanged – chiefly, the UK’s greatest challenges for development which, aside from infrastructure and mobility, are tied to meeting the country’s housing shortage and tackling the climate crisis.
There have also been some big changes. Last month, Michael Gove became secretary of state at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the prime minister’s cabinet reshuffle.
With Gove now at the helm of one of the UK’s most urgent and gigantic tasks, scrutiny over his decision-making has kicked off within design and construction discourse. The bearing of his politics and experience on the future of UK housing has already been discussed in this publication.
>> Also read: Gove mulling complete rethink on planning reforms
His appointment roughly coincides with the UK’s upcoming hosting of COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which in its call for the world to step up climate action, signals a type of change that is systemic, all-encompassing, and hopefully permanent.
The event points to the fate of the UK in its challenge to combat carbon reliance and biodiversity erosion. It forces us to think of what will make the country become a leader in this global paradigm change. So, too, does the renewed challenge for housing delivery.
The question is: what will it take for the country to truly excel, innovate and bring tangible results towards these two pervasive issues? How can the UK become an exemplar in combatting these universal problems?
The answer is multi-faceted and will require great focus, strength and joined-up thinking, but design excellence must be central to solving both the housing and climate crises. At the outset, there seem to be both pros and cons to Gove’s appointment.
With Gove’s prominence and reputation for swift action, the choice signals that housing is at the top of the agenda for the UK
The major pro is that, with his prominence and reputation for swift action, the choice signals that housing is at the top of the agenda for the UK. Gove’s former appointment as environment minister could also represent a vision for housing that tallies with the need to meet climate objectives and build new homes in a manner that safeguards the environment.
But, if we are to rely on history, then there are some red flags when it comes to championing design as a tool to affect real, positive change. During his tenure as secretary of state for education, Gove famously cut the Building Schools for the Future programme – the £55 billion school-building programme introduced by the previous Labour administration – shutting down its focus on design with rhetoric about the needlessness of architectural extravagance.
He later said that he regretted this decision. With the fate of housing being so crucial to the social and urban equilibrium of this country, here’s hoping that he has meaningfully learnt from that mistake.
Good design must be at the heart of reform when it comes to the places we learn, live or spend any amount of time going about our lives
Because good design must be at the heart of reform when it comes to the places we learn, live or spend any amount of time going about our lives. The same is true for converting our urban system into one that is less reliant on carbon.
COP26 should motivate design and construction professionals to show design’s power for demonstration. dRMM’s recently shortlisted Timber Beacon for the conference acts as a signalling tool, showcasing the proven environmental merits of timber as a building material.
This is just a small-scale ambassador for what design can do and teach. Design can and must take up the wider mantle for demonstrating the way forward in sustainable living, for bringing lateral, ecologically friendly solutions that can summon real and measurable change.
This must happen in line with broader policy shifts. The industry’s push for the Part Z amendment, which urges government to mandate limits on embodied carbon for any building project over 1,000m2, could be introduced by 2027. If so, it will be a massive step towards regulating embodied and whole-life carbon across all development – a huge game changer in cutting down the industry’s impact.
The cabinet reshuffle and the hosting of this globally significant conference are just two major events this season that form part of the country’s longer race towards a different future
This kind of legitimisation will help practitioners to get buy-in from clients on project sustainability targets, as without regulation it remains difficult to convince clients who do not have their own environmental targets to make big changes.
Change is exciting and poses fresh opportunity for improvement. The cabinet reshuffle and the hosting of this globally significant conference are just two major events this season that form part of the country’s longer race towards a different future.
The legacy of that future stands to be one of equitable, sustainable and exemplary urban living. Design will be an important author of that legacy, so long as the right people let it.
Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA