Margaret Beckett

The Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP

Minister of State

Minister for Housing and Planning, attending Cabinet

The Future of Green Building in Britain

Date of speech 4 March 2009
Location Earls Court, London
Event summary Ecobuild conference 2009

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

"As Housing Minister, my job is not only to make sure that we build more homes, but better homes. And today, better has simply got to mean greener."

Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you today.

Forty years ago, green building would probably have been an oxymoron.

Twenty years ago, it was a minority interest, a problem solving exercise for engineers.

Today, green building is on everyone's minds: and is already starting to show promising results. There's actually a zero-carbon home here today which I am looking forward to seeing.

And ten years from now, I think green building will be very much the norm.

So who-ever said the future's bright, the future's orange wasn't looking at the right colour chart.

As Housing Minister, my job is not only to make sure that we build more homes, but better homes. And today, better has simply got to mean greener.

But what do we mean by a green building anyway?

For me, a truly green building is one which makes sustainable living second nature, rather than a conscious effort.

Which helps, rather than hinders people's efforts to be green. And which makes sustainable living attainable and affordable for everyone.

Green building is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It's not just an abstract and technical issue.

It raises very practical questions about how we as a society want to live and work in the future: the quality of life that we want for ourselves.

So green building has to be about far more than tweaking building techniques and then slapping an eco-friendly label on the result.

Change has to be far more fundamental and far-reaching than that.

We need to approach every part of the process differently: from drawing board to construction to the point where the new owner gets handed the keys, and even beyond.

This morning, I want to reflect on how we can make that happen, by considering several different parts of the puzzle.

First, making both homes and other buildings greener. Second, making sure that greener building is reflected in greener communities. And third, bringing older homes up to scratch too.

I also want to address the 'elephant in the room' and talk about the implications of the downturn on our ambitions for greener building.

Let me start with new homes first.

Thanks to industry leadership and the zero-carbon target, it is perhaps the area where we have the strongest consensus and seen most progress to date.

Over the next few decades, as you will know, we plan for a massive housebuilding programme to compensate for decades of under-supply.

But we don't just need more homes: we've always said we need better homes. Homes that are appropriate to our changing climate. Homes that actually help reduce our overall carbon emissions.

That is what the zero-carbon target is designed to achieve. And thanks to industry commitment, we're making good progress on this now.

Having got substantial consensus on the overall goal, we're now consulting on the finer detail and technicalities: what can and can't count towards making a home zero-carbon.

As you'll know, we're aiming to achieve similar standards throughout the rest of our buildings too.

This is a huge challenge because of the diversity of the rest of the stock. Building an eco-hospital represents a very different set of issues to an eco-pub or an eco-warehouse.

But it's by no means impossible. We're setting ourselves extremely stretching zero-carbon targets - from 2018 for the public sector and from 2019 for the private sector.

We're currently consulting on how that could be achieved, given what we've already learned from the early steps towards zero-carbon housing.

We want to make sure that the policy is ambitious, yet achievable, and there is a long way to go yet.

But I think it is vitally important to recall that green building is about far more than the zero-carbon target. We must not fixate on zero-carbon at the expense of other standards.

Helping people to cut their carbon emissions is necessary but not sufficient to helping them to lead a more sustainable life.

That's why, for example, the Code for Sustainable Homes goes much wider than simply measuring the carbon emissions of a home.

For example, someone living in a home built to the highest code standards wouldn't just have lower energy consumption.

They would also be able to reduce their waste, cut water usage, and recycle more. They'd benefit from other features too: code homes will be more secure and more adaptable as the family changes.

In short, they'd have not only a greener home, but a better home overall.

Also, if we're talking about greener lifestyles: we've got to think about what goes on outside the home too.

Our parks and public spaces, the way we travel and shop: all can either reinforce or undermine the efforts we're making at home.

However good our intentions, if we end up with really green homes but with no corresponding improvements in the rest of the community, then we won't achieve very much.

Green building isn't about designing the best possible home and then plonking them randomly about the country.

It will only mean something if it's got a proper context, if it's just one part of sustainable development across the whole community.

Something that goes much further than a token cycle route which no-one uses, because they've still got to drive to work.

What we've got to create instead is greener places that reflect what people actually want: outstanding public services, first-class public transport, well-used parks and playgrounds, high employment and a bustling sense of community.

It sounds like a green utopia: nice to dream about maybe, but can it ever work in practice? Where would you start?

These are the kind of questions which eco-towns will help us to answer.

There's been understandable wariness about whether this is any more than adding a coat of green wash to existing developments.

I want to make it clear that yes: it's far more than that: about being as ambitious as possible.

Setting the highest possible standards not just for greener building, but for every aspect of life - while still making sure that we're delivering what people really want, rather than just what fits with a green master-plan.

Over the past few months, we've been undertaking a thorough and wide-ranging consultation to ask potential residents about their hopes and aspirations for eco-towns.

While people are broadly supportive of the principles of eco-towns; they want to make sure that the reality turns out to be as good as the promise.

Quite rightly: no-one wants to live in a futuristic eco-experiment that turns out to be a green ghetto.

So it's essential that we make this process as transparent, robust and accountable as possible: submitting each plan to proper scrutiny.

We've now extended the consultation to give people more chance to speak up and have their say: in advance of the final shortlist being published shortly.

What matters about that shortlist is not the quantity but the quality. It will represent just the first few eco-towns: not the definitive list.

Over time, more proposals will come forward through the local and regional planning process: this shortlist will help to kick-start development and show what can be achieved.

So I'll continue to work with all local authorities interested in developing eco-towns after the shortlist has been published.

In the Thames Gateway too, we are aiming to build on the principles underpinning eco-towns: but incorporating existing development too.

Here of course, getting to grips with broader problems like water scarcity is just as important as working towards zero carbon.

My third theme this morning is about the importance of bringing the rest of the stock up to scratch.

One of the points that's rightly raised time and time again is that building lovely new green homes is great.

But if we fail to bring the rest of the stock up to similar standard, then the overall dent in our carbon emissions is going to be rather small.

The quality of our existing stock, has of course, been a long standing concern. For example, when we first started to talk about the problem of fuel poverty, it quickly became evident that the state of people's housing was just as important as their income.

So a couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to help launch the cross-Government heat and energy savings strategy.

A pretty dull title: but an exciting and unprecedented programme of improvements which will ultimately improve every home and benefit every family in the country.

All basic measures, like lagging the loft and filling cavity walls, in every home by 2015. More substantial improvements for seven million homes by 2020. And by 2030, all homes to benefit from all the cost effective measures possible.

On average, we think that households will save something like £300 on their fuel bills: which will make an incredible difference to people struggling to make ends meet.

The strategy is based on the principle of fairness: everyone getting their fair share of the benefits, and shouldering a fair share of the responsibilities.

The approach we are taking is whole house, whole street. So rather than tinkering with people's lofts and coming back a year later to do the insulation: they will see the full benefit immediately.

Social housing will be at the forefront of these changes. Not only because we can immediately make a difference to some of the people who need the help most.

But also because if we think big right from the outset, we can support industry to rise to the challenge.

We can help develop skills, promote innovation and build capacity so that industry is ready to apply the lessons to the rest of the stock.

And we've just launched a retrofitting competition to encourage forward thinking councils and housing associations to come forward with ambitious improvement plans.

Finally, I know that there will be those who think that green building is a nice idea in principle, but pie-in-the-sky at the moment.

But the threat of climate change hasn't gone away just because the economic context has changed.

The costs of saving this challenge for another day, when the economy has recovered, are far greater than the costs of acting now. In fact, the longer we wait, the higher the ultimate cost.

And as Nicholas Stern was arguing just last week;

"we must keep working on this for the next four decades, so there is no excuse for the necessary measures to be delayed or derailed by short-term economic fluctuations."

Nor can we simply scrap all our efforts to improve quality in a drive for sheer quantity.

Our housebuilding programme isn't supposed to be a quick fix. It's nothing less than an investment in the fabric and future of the nation.

So there is no sense in building poor quality homes just to meet the targets for numbers: we've got to be more farsighted and sensible than that.

Even more than that, I think that there is an important opportunity here.

Investment in greener building and related industries is just one of the ways that we can make the shift to a low carbon economy: promoting sustainable growth in both senses of the word.

The past few years have seen a huge expansion in the so-called green collar jobs; and I believe that the UK can become a real world leader in this sector.

Through investment in green building, for example, we can create jobs, cut costs, and over time, build up our ability to export our ideas, techniques and products.

I know that there is concern about the potential costs of the improvements.

Undoubtedly, at the moment, these costs do add up. But that is because we're still learning about what works, and what's cost-effective, and because truly green building is still something of a niche activity.

So we should not assume that the added costs of green building today will remain fixed costs.

Over time, as we gain in experience and greener building becomes integral to whole developments, not just individual homes, we will start to realise the benefits of economies of scale.

I also think if we truly want this to work then we've got to get those consumers on board.

When people go out and buy a car, they don't just look at the purchase price: the running costs are also a big consideration.

So when people are buying a house - the biggest purchase of their life - it's only sensible that we work towards a similar mindset.

Here, I think there may be scope to build on existing tools which are proving useful to consumers, like EPCs.

However, I do recognise that is clearly not the time to be making unreasonable or unrealistic demands of industry.

While we must not weaken our ambitions or compromise on the ultimate goals, we will only achieve those goals if we are pragmatic and practical about the way ahead.

That's why, for example, our approach to zero carbon housing is stressing flexibility: enabling developers to find a sensible balance which brings in off-site solutions and on-site energy supply, as well as making individual homes more efficient.

In each area, we will be far more effective if we work with industry to achieve our shared objectives.

Government has got to provide clear leadership and a coherent policy backdrop.

We've got to offer the right incentives and the right support which will enable to industry to rise to the challenge - especially by supporting skills development.

But we cannot and will not dictate the answers.

It has always been my belief that if Government sets clear goals: then the private sector will rise to the challenge. It's been proven time and time again, and I have no doubt that will be done so again here.

In conclusion, so what is the future for greener building in Britain?

I think there's every reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Undoubtedly, we've got to be alert and aware of the risks posed by the downturn.

But what we are talking about is a long term programme which could not only help support economic recovery in the short-term.

It could also help lay the foundations for growth and prosperity over the long-term; and help millions of families to live a better, more sustainable life.

Thank you very much.

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