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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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