The green agenda is poised to create thousands of jobs and real growth. But imagination and commitment are needed to grasp this chance, says Willmott Dixon’s Chris Durkin
At a time when we face the real possibility of a triple-dip recession, firms are struggling to survive and youth unemployment in the UK is running at 20%, any opportunity to kick-start the economy and create jobs must be seized with both hands. That is why we are pleased to support Building’s Green for Growth campaign.
The green agenda is not new - clients have been setting ever more demanding sustainable targets for their buildings for years, and contractors have become increasingly rigorous in enforcing sustainability standards through their supply chain. We’ve also seen the arrival of new techniques like Passivhaus and a significant rise in properties achieving the top sustainable rating of BREEAM outstanding.
Yet the game-changer in mobilising thousands of jobs and creating real green growth in the market has yet to come. This has been down to mixed messages from the government combined with a “wait and see” approach by many in the industry.
One much publicised opportunity is the retrofit of housing and non-domestic property - something the recently launched Green Deal should start to drive in the case of homes. Willmott Dixon was an official Green Deal pioneer and aims to play an active role in delivering this, building up the expertise and supply chain partners.
We are also partnering with a number of energy companies under the Energy Company Obligation.
What is really needed to capture the imagination of the general public are attention-grabbing incentives that encourage take-up. For example, link the energy efficiency of homes with their stamp duty threshold, and you will attract the attention of a lot of people. Waive stamp duty on the most energy efficient homes, and you will have serious traction. For that to be cost neutral to the Treasury, you would have to offset these reductions against stamp duty rises for poorly performing homes - politically a very tough decision.
However, these or similar measures will lead to companies investing in training and jobs to meet market demand. With more people falling into fuel poverty, the role of our sector to provide low cost energy in homes is one of the biggest opportunities that we have to drive skills and jobs.
The game-changer in mobilising thousands of jobs and creating green growth is yet to come. This is down to mixed messages from government
We’ve already begun this process because we see a really bright future for the green economy and initiatives like the Green Deal. Last month we invested £1m in the creation of the Willmott Dixon 4Life Skills Academy in Birmingham to provide training for 2,000 people every year. This includes renewable technology, PV and solar panel installation plus energy compliance monitoring. We believe this is an investment in creating skills and jobs to prepare for a major surge in demand over the next 10 years.
The government does have a dilemma in the messages it sends on low carbon property. For example, if it sets tough targets that homes and non-domestic buildings must be zero-carbon by 2016 and 2019 respectively, will that inhibit development as projects become unviable? Will being sustainable add cost to your business model?
But sustainability can be good for business. Taking active measures to de-carbonise our business will benefit the bottom line - for example, we aim to save £4.5m on our energy bills between 2010 and 2014 through taking action to reduce our carbon footprint by 15% during that period.
Being sustainable is about being lean; the less waste we produce the more competitive we’ll be. We’re now diverting 96% of our waste away from landfill and in the process have already saved £2.8m in disposal costs and landfill tax. Likewise, for our customers, solutions like our standardised design Sunesis products, developed with Scape, respond to the “more for less” agenda by demonstrating a 30% cost saving in delivering cleverly designed, thermally efficient, lower cost-in-use schools.
While the government is right to cut unnecessary bureaucracy, it is important to recognise that not all regulation is an inhibitor. Last-minute changes or scrapping of expected legislation can mean that companies have invested only to find the landscape has changed with the resulting damage - for small firms, sometimes fatal damage - that this can cause.
There is much to be positive about, and what I welcome most about Building’s Green for Growth campaign is that it is bringing attention to what that is, and what more needs to be done to see the green economy stimulate jobs, bring new growth and see the UK become a major exporter of world-class low carbon expertise.
Chris Durkin is divisional CEO of Willmott Dixon Support Services and main board member responsible for sustainability