The drive to retrofit may be the biggest casualty of the government’s failure to fulfil its green promises

Sarah Richardson

It’s been almost five years since David Cameron made his ill-fated pledge that his would be the “greenest government ever”. Since then, what was heralded as a promise of progress has turned into a statement laden with irony, repeated only by those dismayed by the coalition’s record on creating a more environmentally sustainable UK. And among the many sustainable initiatives that fell by the wayside in the quest for austerity, it is the drive for retrofit that has arguably been the most regrettable casualty.

The UK’s ageing housing and commercial office stock is well known to be one of the biggest factors behind the built environment’s contribution to damaging carbon emissions: to meet the UK’s climate change targets, it is estimated that around 1,200 homes need to be retrofitted each day. It is also an area where, thanks to the small scale of individual projects, damage can be significantly reduced without the need for a single, huge funding injection or the negotiation of complex planning processes. So the deeply flawed approach to implementing initiatives to drive retrofit, such as the Green Deal and Display Energy Certificates, and an apparent lack of political will behind their success, has led to a major missed opportunity for progress. It has also done far more harm than good to the construction industry, which geared up to serve markets that soon shrivelled in a wave of job cuts and financial woes.

It was heartening to see retrofit take centre stage in the debate at sustainability event Ecobuild this week, in a way that demonstrated it is rising up the agenda again as the political parties head into the next election

So against this backdrop, it was heartening to see retrofit take centre stage in the debate at sustainability event Ecobuild this week, in a way that demonstrated it is rising up the agenda again as the political parties head into the next election. This was not just about the sums of money for retrofit announced by energy secretary Ed Davey: the £3m under this government for energy efficiency improvements to help the fuel poor, or even the eye-catching £2bn-a-year Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to help retrofit 10 million homes by 2025 - highly welcome though these are.

More important, though, was the growing public recognition among politicians, Davey included, that addressing the energy performance of existing buildings could add up to progress on a number of major challenges for the UK, with significance far beyond the sum of the projects that would make up the programme’s parts. A recognition that, by taking a long-term approach, a future government could make a real improvement in the impact on the UK’s environmental performance as a whole - and on the health and wellbeing of the buildings’ occupants. This acceptance of the need for a long-term approach was exemplified by Davey’s pledge that the Lib Dems would make retrofit a national infrastructure priority. This meets a central aim of Building’s Agenda 15 manifesto for construction; although it is disappointing that Davey does not support an independent body to ensure the plan’s delivery.

The significance of this mindset shift to favour the long-term was underlined by the vice chair of the Royal College of GPs calling it an “important turning point in acting on what we have known for some time.” Evidence to advance the case for retrofit - from both a health perspective, and an environmental one - has been available and widely discussed for years, but the lack of political will to address it has meant that this knowledge has not had the benefits it should have done: for future generations, in terms of the sustainability of their environment, or for those currently living in potentially lethally cold conditions.

The construction sector has seen to its cost over the past five years that political rhetoric on sustainability can fall away as other pressures come to the fore, so the industry is highly unlikely to treat the latest commitments with complete confidence. But the growing appreciation of the long-term benefits of a programme of work that large sections of the industry have long campaigned for, is a far more encouraging sign that it will receive long-term backing than we have seen in some time.

Sarah Richardson, editor