Government ministers have announced their good intentions at Ecobuild but they need to convince us all that they have an integrated green policy

Sarah Richardson, editor of Building

If the construction industry was looking for one crucial change going into this week’s Ecobuild event, it was for the government to demonstrate unequivocal leadership on climate change - leadership which has so far been absent, despite the pressure of tough EU carbon reduction targets and plenty of sage nodding in the right direction from ministers (both with and without a backdrop of huskies).

Former chief construction adviser Paul Morrell summed up the problem with characteristic colour on the first day of the Ecobuild event in London, saying the most important thing the government could do was sound a “constant trumpet” call about sustainability: basically a consistent message that everyone at the top of government believes in the climate change science and therefore that action to tackle it will be prioritised.

For steps like the route map to contribute to the carbon reduction and growth agendas in a truly meaningful way, they need to be followed by many more strides

So, with a host of ministers speaking at the event, how close did we come to getting what we want? Business minister Michael Fallon took a laudable stance when he said that “green and growth are just two sides of the same coin”, and insisted that an “efficient, profitable construction sector is at the heart of any economy”.

Energy secretary Ed Davey’s promise that the government was prepared to adjust the Green Deal if it does not produce hoped-for levels of take-up was welcome, given the already slow start to the initiative. And the publication of the government’s Low Carbon Routemap (news and Paul Morrell’s comment piece), setting out the measures necessary for industry to achieve current carbon reduction targets, was a further step in the right direction.

But for all the encouraging noises, these remain single steps - and for initiatives like the routemap to contribute to the carbon reduction and growth agendas in a truly meaningful way, they need to be followed by many more strides towards an integrated green policy. Lord Deighton, the commercial secretary to the Treasury (and former Locog chief executive), told the event on Wednesday that there was a “vacuum” in leadership for driving sustainability across government - albeit one he hopes to address.

As someone who has only recently joined Whitehall, taking up his post just over two months ago, he has the advantage of being able to view both its virtues and shortcomings with fresh eyes. And those within his department, in particular, should take note - after all, the Treasury has been publicly blamed by figures including Morrell for acting as a brake on the green agenda, even if this has always been denied by the department.

Morrell acknowledged this week that for the construction industry adequately to contribute to the UK target of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 would, without much greater regulation, require a “heroic assumption to be made about what was possible”. The problem of an industry worth roughly 8% of GDP still being in recession is, in economic terms, just as much of a challenge. But if the two issues really are treated by policy makers as two sides of the same coin, rather than disparate problems, then that challenge, if not halved, would be significantly reduced.

Sarah Richardson, editor