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OPINION: Britain's cities of the future should be rooted in the past

Thursday, 27 February 2020 10:07 GMT

Britian's Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to lay a brick during a visit to the Barratt Homes - Willow Grove housing development in Bedford, Britian November 21, 2019. Dan Kitwood/Pool via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What needs to change, and urgently, is this widely held belief that new homes means new builds

Ask people to imagine what a typical city in Britain might look like in 50 years’ time and many will conjure up images that wouldn’t be out of place in the movie 'Bladerunner'. There’s a sense that the future will look radically different to the past.

But this is not inevitable, or at least won’t be for some time yet.

The reason is climate change and Britain's commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve that goal, the way we build houses will require fundamental change.

The most fundamental part of that change will be transitioning from the widely held view that new housing, by default, means new homes.

Increasingly, the penny is dropping, and house-builders are accepting that a far less carbon-intensive way to expand the stock of UK housing is through the ‘upcycling’ of existing real estate assets.

Upcycling is still a relatively little known term but essentially means retrofitting, or refurbishing, unused or underused buildings rather than knocking them down and starting from scratch, which leaves a far larger carbon footprint.

It’s a much more environmentally-friendly way of creating the new homes we need so urgently but one that is often overlooked in an era where major house-builders creating vast estates of new-build ‘units’ is the norm and has been for many years.

The Carbon Trust made this very point back in 2015: “What you probably won’t hear many people talking about is how large parts of the sustainable cities of the future will look very similar to the cities of today. But that’s the reality, at least in the UK, where the Carbon Trust estimates that over half of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built.”

The irony is that we’ve known that upcycling assets is far less carbon-intensive for many years. Even a decade ago, for example, a report by regional housing solutions provider, Radian Group, created in partnership with the European Regional Development Fund, showed exactly that.

The report concluded: "The advanced retrofit home has the lowest total lifetime emissions of 139 tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). This is 27% less than the brick and block new home built to 2010 Building Regulations, which has the highest lifetime emissions at 191 tCO2e."

So what needs to change, and urgently, is this widely held belief that new homes means new builds.

With the U.N. climate summit (COP26) taking place in Glasgow this year, putting even more pressure on the government to show its commitment to sustainability, what better time than now to start driving that message home?

The looming March 2020 UK Budget is the perfect time for the government and new Chancellor of the Exchequer, to announce measures that further incentivise the upcycling of existing real estate in Britain.

This could be done through a combination of tax incentives and streamlined planning permission for the growing ranks of regional SME developers in urban areas who are adopting this far more sustainable, less carbon-intensive way of building the residential homes our growing population needs.

And the benefits aren’t just environmental but aesthetic and emotive, too. In an interview at the end of last year, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, said:

“It seems a tide is turning against generic housing estates towards homes that are really rooted in communities and returning to the basics of good design—homes built on streets, the streets being tree-lined, houses having front doors, a sense of community and neighbourliness.”

In other words, upcycling has the potential to transform not just our impact on the environment but local communities, too — the best of both worlds.


Chris Gardner is chief operating officer at Atelier Capital Partners, which provides bespoke short-term lending solutions to professional property investors