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Recycling our heritage: conservation and climate change

16 July 2020

If we are to achieve our net zero carbon targets, protect our built heritage and provide a variety of suitable homes for people to live in, the government should consider further incentivising the recycling and retrofit of such buildings.

Sam Elliott Planner London

After months of being confined to our living rooms with attention firmly focused elsewhere, it would be easy to sideline our increasingly pressing commitments to fight climate change. However, if we are to meet our obligations to become ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050, we need to refocus our energies quickly, and our approach to managing the built environment will need to adapt.

Whilst we generally recognise how our old buildings can contribute to the social, economic and aesthetic quality of the places we live and work, a growing area of research now indicates that their conservation could also play a significant role in curbing carbon emissions.

Research published by Historic England prior to lockdown found that, without a step change in attitudes towards reusing our historic buildings, the government’s net zero carbon ambitions could be unattainable.

The ‘Heritage Counts’ report highlights that the construction industry is responsible for 42 per cent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions (as well as significant excess waste and plastic consumption). It identifies emissions arising from three stages of a building’s life cycle – 1) construction; 2) daily emissions; and 3) demolition. We tend to be familiar with the impacts of 2, whilst 1 and 3 are more of a blind spot.

This should be of particular concern. Historic England’s research on the “carbon lifetime” of buildings indicates that a failure to count the carbon embodied within demolished buildings could mean we underestimate emissions by almost a third. According to the report, replacing a traditional Victorian terrace – a typical ‘at risk’ historic building – with a similarly proportioned house would produce up to 13 times more embodied carbon than refurbishment would.

It is therefore helpful that the government have announced grants to allow householders to improve the insultation of their properties and this should go some way towards addressing the issue of the carbon footprint of existing buildings.

Historic spaces are typically more constrained and costly to adapt to modern users, and often it is simply not possible or viable to retain an historic property. But this is not helped by the UK’s current VAT system, which imposes a 20 per cent tax rate on repair, maintenance and refurbishing existing buildings, whilst new-build developments are VAT-free.

A housing crisis combined with the relative infancy of this important research might mean issues around conservation and climate change are overlooked for now. However, the climate emergency is here to stay, and the early research still raises a serious challenge to the industry. Recent figures show there are over 200,000 empty homes in England, whilst thousands of historic and 20th Century buildings are not used to their full potential. If we are to achieve our net zero carbon targets, protect our built heritage and provide a variety of suitable homes for people to live in, the government should consider further incentivising the recycling and retrofit of such buildings.

Sam Elliott is a Planner in Planning Potential's in-house heritage team. For advice, insight, or to share your views on Sam's article above, get in touch on 020 7357 8000 or [email protected]