With the political party conference season done and dusted for another year, it is useful to reflect on discussions and announcements emanating from these show piece events relevant to our industry, to judge how or if, they might impact on the way we do construction in the UK.
Energy efficiency, sustainability and fuel poverty were extensively discussed as was the need to build more houses and improve the ones we already have. No change there you might think, but the high level of engagement both from delegates and various hangers-on at conference, gives a good indication as to the importance these subjects hold for many in the political arena, even if in many cases they are woefully short on how rather than what.
Achievement and Change is Needed
Despite good intentions and promises, it is of course the detail of how we achieve specific objectives and the actual implementation and delivery plan of policies that is of greatest importance. A well-attended fringe event, or wishful line or two delivered to conference, may well sound positive and hopeful and these can set out the general direction in which the major parties are heading. But they are no substitute for the achievement and change that is needed. Over the last decade or so we have seen only too often some great ideas flounder on the rocks of reality and fall very short of achieving their initial objectives.
We currently have a plethora of initiatives, including the Clean Growth Strategy, the Industrial Strategy and A Green Future, with its 25 year plan to improve the environment, all impacting on how construction and the built environment should develop and play its part in our future world. The framework is well established although delivery is much harder than the aspiration.
Oppositions can and do promise plenty, but Labour is unlikely to be in a position any time soon where it will be called upon to deliver against its promises. Although the announcement about dramatically increasing the number of homes that must be insulated is surely welcome as is its understanding that properly insulated properties go a very long way towards addressing both fuel poverty and energy efficiency. Rigid PIR insulation is an essential component in ensuring we deliver the highest quality of thermal efficiency.
Housebuilding clearly remains one of the most emotive and important interfaces between governments and the electorate and I have no doubt that both parties really do wish to provide the housing numbers and housing types society requires. However, as a country, we consistently fail to build both the quantity needed and the quantity promised by our politicians.
Removing the cap
The government’s announcement that it will remove the cap on how much local authorities can borrow against their Housing Revenue Account assets to fund new developments, is very welcome and we look forward to further details as to how this policy will work for local authorities up and down the country.
These local authority houses will be essential if the government is to come anywhere near its intention of having 300,000 homes built each year by the mid 2020s – a figure that has not been achieved for many decades.
It is unlikely we will achieve these figures, but the intended consultation outlining the government’s plan to speed up the planning system and make better use of land and vacant buildings, is the first step in this direction. The government wants to give more flexibility to extend upwards on existing blocks of flats, shops and offices and make better use of space by increasing housing density.
It also has an ambition to encourage councils to develop new garden communities, develop brownfield sites and dispose of surplus land that could instead accommodate new homes. Only time will tell how successful this will be.
In the haste to build the promised number of homes, we must not allow the quality of buildings to be sacrificed for quantity. Building homes that do not meet tomorrows energy efficiency requirements is not acceptable and this would be a massive failure for tomorrow’s homeowners.
With the announcement of a New Homes Ombudsman to protect home owners’ interests and hold developers to account, there is a recognition that standards are important. But this will only work if the ombudsman knows what to look for, understands and measures all performance criteria and has the teeth to enforce the necessary standards and condemn those that fall short.
As is always the case; we await further details…
Finally, we had the announcement that the government will take forward its proposal to ban the use of combustible material on external walls on all high-rise buildings that contain flats, as well as hospitals, residential care premises and student accommodation above 18 metres. The ban will be delivered through changes to building regulations and will limit materials available to products achieving a European classification of class A1 or A2.