If you went to this week’s Ecobuild, you’ll have seen some impressive green credentials among construction firms - shame the government is lagging so far behind, says Isabel McAlllister

Isabel McAllister

Some of you may know that we’re approaching an anniversary. On 14 May it will be three years since the prime minister David Cameron spoke to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and announced that he wanted the coalition to be “the greenest government ever.”

It’s a date that resonates with those committed to sustainability; we reflect on the question, “Is David Cameron on target to achieve what he set out to do?”
I drafted this column before Ecobuild, so unless there’s been a governmental announcement and you’re reading this excited by a set of new industry incentives, for me, the answer to the above question is no. There is a great deal of sustainability rhetoric and bold statements, and the creation of acronyms (ECO, GIB, GCB) but delivery of results is less evident, not least as the mechanisms proposed are overly complicated and schemes are often punitive rather than incentive-based.

The ‘golden rule’ doesn’t work and ‘Green Dealees’ will be faced with the prospect of watching their financial savings vanish towards paying off uncompetitively priced loans

Meanwhile, the construction industry pushes boundaries to integrate green into their own business strategies. The government could learn from those such as Sainsbury’s, BT and British Land, companies that understand that sustainability saves money, helps future-proof their businesses, and has the added benefit of supporting policy targets. Organisations such as these are leading by doing rather than waiting to be told what happens next.

By comparison, back in 2005 I crunched a lot of numbers on behalf of a government department, with a view to creating a Green Deal-esque business case and implementation models. These numbers have been re-crunched and re-re-crunched but remain unpublished and eight years later, the numbers are still under review; the government has made slow progress. It has been well documented in Building recently that the current Green Deal model appears less attractive and a lot more complex than borrowing from a high street bank. In essence, the “golden rule” at the heart of the scheme doesn’t work and “Green Dealees” will be faced with the prospect of watching their financial savings vanish towards paying off uncompetitively priced loans.

Not only is the scheme probably not technically or economically viable for many applicants, but the government does not appear to have communicated its message regarding its availability to potential recipients. A recent YouGov poll stated that 98% of the general public had not heard of the Green Deal. One would have hoped that with over eight years to get the communications right, more could have been achieved. A few weeks ago, Building reported that only five homes had signed up for the Green Deal.

Only another 20 million or so homeowners to go, then.

Some would argue that the economy has derailed the drive to be “the greenest government ever,” as governmental priorities have changed. Industry is working within the same economic conditions but still companies continue to promote and implement sustainability initiatives. We are seeing pioneering programmes of investment, behavioural change and efficient and innovative manufacturing. These companies are pushing back against preconceptions that sustainability can be deleted from the agenda in difficult times, and instead see sustainability as an opportunity for growth.

So this week what I hope you’ll have seen at Ecobuild is signs of a government willing constructively to engage with and learn from industry and offer the leadership that is at the moment sorely lacking - rather than ministers spouting new three-letter acronyms and unemployed students dressed as polar bears handing out branded merchandise.

Isabel McAllister is director of sustainability at international consultancy and construction company Mace

Green for growth

ecobuild box after event