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Sustainable agenda: why cleaning up the environment won't be painless


Have we reached the point where cleaning up our environmental behaviour is starting to hurt? The latest piece of legislation, the Secure and Sustainable Buildings Act, has sneaked up on us unexpectedly. A private members' bill that has actually passed into law (when was the last time that happened? ), it doubtless did so on the feelgood factor. Of course, we all want to do right by our environment, and it is backed by the World Wildlife Fund, which we all support because of those nice cuddly animals. It seems a fitting addition to other legislation aimed at making our buildings less polluting.

The surprise is that the complaints are not coming from an opponent of the sustainable agenda. Bill Gething of Feilden Clegg Bradley, one of the leading designers of environmentally responsible buildings, is the RIBA's chief advisor on sustainability. Yet he is leading the criticism of the changes, not because he deprecates the principle but because there are elements that he feels will not work without further investment in research and enforcement. The new act will make life even more complicated, not least because many of its requirements will be enforced retrospectively.

This is essential given that most of our building stock is old and inefficient, so legislating only for the new would have little impact. But it will hurt householders who may find they cannot make small changes to their homes unless they also introduce substantial improvements in energy efficiency. There will be costs for the enforcement industry, and a need for further study if some elements are not to be counter-productive. In short, there will be an impact on both the private and the public purse. This is inevitable if we are to make real improvements in our carbon emissions. So far we have tried to maintain the polite fiction that it can all be done painlessly. Only this week a commentator on Radio 4 started by warning of calamitous floods and plagues of mosquitoes, and moved on to suggest that we should all turn off the lights in empty rooms. Turning off the lights will not be enough, a realisation that cannot be far away.

But with the short-term views of politicians, it is one that it is unlikely to be made public before the next election.

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