We don't just have a housing crisis, we have a green housing crisis

The need for 'low impact building', through both 'retrofitting' older properties with new technologies and new builds, is urgent.

The UK has some of the oldest and leakiest housing and property stock in the world. At the same time we have a stiff target of reducing carbon emissions (by 34% by 2020 from a 1990 base). Sounds gloomy, but this giant problem could also be a saviour in revivifying the UK economy. 'Greening' the world's buildings is going to mean big business for those firms with the right skills and knowledge. Not just builders but the whole supply chain, from architects and product designers to lawyers and plumbers. Estimates put the market for low carbon building technologies in our region, the West Midlands, at around £1.7 billion.

The need for "low impact building", through both "retrofitting" older properties with new technologies and new builds, is urgent. Those carbon targets, rising energy prices and some looming legislation (from 2016 all new housing needs to "zero carbon", and from 2018 the Energy Act makes it unlawful for landlords to lease residential or commercial buildings with an Energy Performance Certificate rating of an F or G), makes change inevitable. And yet the response from industry and landlords is still hesitant and limited.

A clear commitment is needed from Government. A coherent and consistent regulatory and legislative landscape for sustainable building needs to be in place to secure the issue, to reassure everyone involved that schemes like the Green Deal are not a fad but the new reality of property development and home ownership. UK industry in particular needs to be given the necessary confidence that demand for refurbishment products and renewable and low carbon technologies is ongoing, that all the investment in research and development is worthwhile, and that recruiting and training a new legion of experts and installers makes sense.

SMEs are a missing link. With the ongoing recession in construction you'd expect firms of all sizes to be chasing the new opportunities but instead smaller firms are reluctant to make any investment in new approaches and up skilling when budgets are tight; large contracts remain out of reach, and potential partners are put off by their lack of green technology know-how. But the potential remain huge for those firms willing to commit themselves to the low impact buildings market, and provide an important supply chain of innovative sustainable approaches and solutions for the big contractors. To make this happen firms need to get advice and support to make the change. For example, in the West Midlands - where construction and related firms have seen the biggest decline - Coventry University is running the Sustainable Building Futures (SBF) project for small to medium sized businesses to help them make themselves competitive for the future (until June 2015). Co-financing from the University and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) means the help is all provided free for eligible organisations.

There is still a skills and knowledge issue in the UK. There are question marks over whether the quality of installation of new technologies can be guaranteed, and with products available at reasonable cost and sourced from UK suppliers. Higher Education has a role in embedding the training requirements for these 'new' skills into existing programmes, as well as being a source of informed opinion on new technologies and their suitability.

The scale of the "greening" project facing us in the coming years means the UK is well-placed to become the expert. Learn some lessons and get the offering right and there's no reason we can't play an important role on a world stage.

Photograph: Getty Images

Professor Mark Gaterell is the director of the Low Impact Building Centre at Coventry University

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.