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Sustainability does not need to cost the earth

We are in a period of unprecedented social, economic and technological change – both here at home and globally.  What does this mean for being ‘green’ or ‘eco-sustainable’ – especially as it is applied to the built environment, which has high environmental impacts – 40% of our CO2 emissions come from our buildings, for example.

Does eco-sustainability have a place in the midst of all these other changes? Should it still be a priority? Or should an emphasis on being ‘green’ be dropped or reduced in the light of these other imperatives?

People factors

The global population continues to increase, and we are living in a period of mass migration to cities. Many countries, like Britain, are faced with an aging population - by 2050, half our population will be over the age of 65. Many of these people will be in good health, but many others will have chronic health problems, like dementia, breathing difficulties or diabetes. So how will existing systems like the NHS cope? Moving to a health sector that is focused on keeping people healthy and fit in their homes and communities will become an increasing emphasis; a sea change in our country’s policies and culture.

Austerity and competitiveness

We are also living in a time of austerity here, in parts of Europe and probably soon in the US, while economies elsewhere are growing. How to get austerity right, while at the same time enabling growth and better competitiveness against other countries is a significant challenge.

Fuel poverty and associated impacts on health and wellbeing

Did you know that around 1 in 5 households are now in fuel poverty in Britain – these are households that are spending more than 10% of their total income on energy.  Many people living in these fuel poor homes suffer some form of related physical injury or illness. Around £1 billion a year is being spent on providing medical treatment for these people. We at BRE are currently researching the impact that fuel poverty has on mental health and wellbeing and the related costs to society, which are likely to be higher than the physiological costs. So as energy prices rise, there is a growing societal and economic need to make fuel poor homes more energy efficient – to take their occupants out of fuel poverty. For many people, the rising cost of energy is hitting disposable incomes, which in turn decreases the spending power of the economic engine driving our economy. Clearly the ‘green’ agenda and doing something significant to reduce the energy demands of buildings can do more than save carbon.

Sustainability – added cost?

But the trouble with all the ‘green’ issues is that they cost more money, get in the way, require bureaucratic regulation, don’t they? Or isn’t being ‘green’ all about new technologies and added costs? It is true that green technologies have a cost but ultimately, and with the right approach, going green is synonymous with best business practice, successful outcomes for all and profit. Let’s consider some examples that provide food for thought.

London 2012

I was seconded to the Olympic Delivery Authority for 6 years, working on construction for the London 2012 Games between 2006 and 2012. We adopted a balanced scorecard approach for the delivery of the Olympic build programme. Key issues on the scorecard included: health and safety (our number one priority); delivering on time; delivering on or under budget; meeting our sustainability targets; and being a great employer. These priorities were reflected in how we  designed, procured and delivered the project. They had a positive impact on our culture and approach and permeated all those who worked on the project. Rather than prescribing solutions, we were all encouraged to think innovatively about how to meet  the disparate objectives and challenges we faced.  

We invited prospective suppliers to innovate to come up with the best solutions and we procured against this balanced scorecard. ‘Green’ approaches, such as minimising resource use and  waste, optimising efficiencies, reducing embodied environmental impacts, and responsible sourcing were embraced and they led in several instances to reduced first costs, improved process and safety, delivery of what was promised, saving money overall, and meeting sustainability standards. This approach helped British companies to up their game, to innovate and be better than international competition (full reports on this can be found on the London 2012 learning legacy website).

AIMC4 – ‘greener’ homes

The government and industry funded housing research initiative AIMC4 is a great example of an innovation project based on sustainability that is helping our country to deliver against its own priorities and also to improve our edge for export.

The objective of the project was to build ‘greener’ homes at the same or lower cost than less energy efficient homes using the government’s Code for Sustainable Homes. The Code brings together the range of disparate but related factors required in a ‘green’ home; factors such as energy efficiency, waste, biodiversity, materials and water, for example.  Importantly, it does not prescribe what to do, or what to use, but it does provide a consistent methodology by which different approaches can be compared. It is the system by which to innovate.

 In AIMC4 the focus has been on how to build sustainability into the fabric of the building. Project partners Technology Strategy Board, Barratt Homes, Crest Nicholson, Stewart Milne and BRE adopted a new culture with their supply chain, inviting solutions rather than buying only on first costs. The new solutions were trialled on a number of homes, and successes and failures carefully measured and rectified. The outcomes are better quality, more efficient, durable homes with appreciably lower energy bills and potentially lower mortgage rates because lenders’ risks are reduced. The homes are over 50% more energy efficient, without adding cost when delivered at volume around the country. They have been achieved by smart regulation, the right culture, and a collaborative approach. The initiative has helped to make British companies world class. Just like the Olympics

There is a clear imperative to deliver better economic and societal outcomes by being ‘green’.


‘Green’ schools have been required as part of the Department for Education’s new school building programme for a number of years. These schools require significantly higher performance levels to achieve more environmentally sustainable performance.  A similar approach to the ODA and AIMC4 methodology has been applied, this time using a system called BREEAM, which again brings together the ‘green’ factors that are key to innovation. The outcome? ‘Green’ schools are being built with almost no added cost above ‘normal’ schools, but with operating energy costs some 20% to 30% lower, meaning more money to spend  on  learning outcomes. Once again, better economic and societal outcomes are achieved by being more environmentally sustainable.

Real estate owners

Large corporate names are getting in on the ‘green’ agenda too – not just because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, but because it’s good for the brand, for customers and because it is increasingly having an impact on balance sheet value, P&L and share value. Recent studies have shown that ‘greener’ real estate can achieve higher sale and rental values,  and is easier to let. If you are a corporate with large real estate holdings, even a modest uplift on asset value can be significant for the balance sheet. And if energy costs are reduced, then there is a saving on P&L too. And this is before you take into account the benefits that occur in reporting on corporate social responsibility. A number of large European real estate owners have formed the International Sustainability Alliance to benchmark, share problems and practices to become greener. Again, this is an economically driven ‘green’ programme.

The British companies involved in these initiatives are positioning themselves strongly against international competition and are consequently better placed to compete in export markets. They exemplify the ‘green growth’ that is now essential to our national economic wellbeing.

The smart thinking on sustainability is that economic and societal drivers are as important as environmental ones. The ‘eco’ in sustainability is actually becoming closer to meaning ‘economic’ as the main driver, rather than ‘ecological’. This is an important step forward.

The new question we need to ask ourselves is, do we understand this approach and are we taking actions in what we do, to achieve the triple bottom line benefits that arise from being more sustainable? And does our government? Is the smart, systems based regulation in place or being prepared?


Time will tell.

Dr. Peter Bonfield, is Chief Executive of the BRE Group

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide