Monday, September 20, 2021

What emergency?

 I have just watched ministers from MHCLG (about to be amended to include leveling up) and BEIS answering questions put by the MHCLG select committee. According to the ministers everything is going swimmingly (apart from the hiccup of the Green Homes Grant) and we are 'gliding' to net zero carbon.  There is no problem with new housing being the responsibility of MHCLG and retrofitting existing under the care of BEIS.  Nor is it a problem for local councils to fund their response to the climate emergency because there isn't one ie all will be sorted by 2050.  Building to net zero (as was intended by 2016 under a previous administration) must not be allowed to interfere with building new houses designed to a good standard; not net zero and without any post occupancy evaluation. No understanding that upgrading of any meaningful kind would be harder and more costly than when in the build. The planning system is being changed but the minister was not briefed that any council that had interpreted the NPPF presumption in favour of 'sustainable development' to mean that the development had to be sustainable, as he claimed,  was simply overruled due to an assumed shortage of available housing land. leading to the building of houses that will now need upgrading.

The members of the select committee asked all the right questions (the Chair Clive Betts interjected "...that won't save the planet"!)  but the format squeezes ministers and their civil servants into their box of self-justification rather than into a collaborative discussion of how to get out of this mess.

The new Secretary of State for leveling up (and housing but not, perhaps, local government?) is Michael Gove. The main message is that the transition to a low/zero/negative carbon economy could and should be the same as one that levels the country socially and economically.  Most if not all the ways in which inequalities are expressed would be severely limited when there carbon footprint comes into play.  The housing resource will have to be more evenly distributed by subdividing existing houses so that the space and fabric being heated and insulated is being occupied and meeting genuine housing needs. This will reduce the need for new building and the carbon emissions emitted from the building materials and operations and associated services and infrastructure. The increase in population density would support lifetime or 20min neighbourhoods. The works could be carried out by custom-builders turned custom-splitters. Biodiversity would not be lost to new building in the countryside or back gardens.  Mr Gove should be delighted that sub-divisions at scale would reduce the 300,000 new dwellings per annum target that was a factor in losing an election in the 'blue wall'.  Sharing of EVs, more walking and cycling, less flying, more repairing, reduced obsolescence, fewer new clothes, enhanced local green space are necessary components of a zero carbon economy but all are more generally affordable.  That leaves energy for heating, cooking and lighting which will require a better fit between the size of households and housing.

Michael Gove was the original chairman of Policy Exchange, the think tank responsible for the planning white paper.  His shuffle to LUPMHCLG is to repair the electoral damage that the white paper has inflicted! It is just a pity that he is unlikely to see carbon budgets that have a sense of reality (ie to zero by 2030) as key to leveling-up that is a political slogan.