Architects Declare, the UKGBC and the RIBA have all responded with alarm to the Prime Minister’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech about the UK’s economic recovery today
In recent weeks, the government has touted the phrase ‘Build Back Better’ when discussing how the country can recover from the Covid pandemic.
However, in a speech in Dudley in the West Midlands today (30 June), Boris Johnson promised to rapidly ‘build build build’ homes and infrastructure including roads as part of a £5 billion ‘New Deal’ to respond to the economic damage caused by the coronavirus.
Architects Declare, which recently wrote to Johnson calling on him to show ‘true leadership’ in the face of climate emergency said his speech fell ‘woefully short’ of what was needed to stay within a 1.5C rise in global temperatures and failed to heed widespread calls for a green recovery.
The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) complained the speech said nothing about the pressing need for a major retrofitting programme to slash carbon emissions from the country’s housing stock.
And RIBA president Alan Jones said he was ‘extremely concerned’ by a proposal to enable even more commercial buildings to change to residential use without the need for a planning application.
During his speech, Johnson asked: ‘Why are we so slow at building homes by comparison with other European countries?
‘In 2018 we built 2.25 homes per 1000 people. Germany managed 3.6, the Netherlands 3.8, France 6.8.
‘I’ll tell you why, because time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country, so we will build better and build greener but we will also build faster. That is why the chancellor Rishi Sunak and I have set up Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done.’
A spokesperson for Architects Declare - which represents over 950 practices and architects and is becoming increasingly political - said while it welcomed investment that reduced inequality and improved health, the speech failed to show global leadership in the build up to the COP 26 climate summit.
’It is reported that the government proposes to spend £100 million on building roads - 10 times what is earmarked for rail – and this is clearly moving in the opposite direction,’ the spokesperson said.
’The speech lacked specific commitments and made no clear reference to the £9.2bn Conservative manifesto pledge for renovating Britain’s draughty and unhealthy homes – this would create jobs, reduce fuel poverty, and help to meet legislated carbon targets. It is essential that this is given high priority. As leading construction professionals, we are ready and waiting to offer the practical expertise to deliver this and the necessary zero carbon buildings programme.’
Julie Hirigoyen, the chief executive of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), said the speech suggested a ‘frenzy of building’, which left a huge question mark over the government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.
‘If we do not seize this moment, and take the opportunity to underpin our recovery plans with climate ambition, we will not achieve our target of net zero emissions by 2050,’ she said. ‘Yet the plans announced by the PM today make no reference to energy efficiency – perhaps the most urgent of all infrastructure priorities – that can create jobs right around the country, improve health and reduce costs to NHS, and increase consumer spending power by lowering energy bills.
‘All this despite universal support for a national retrofit strategy over the past few weeks from wide ranging industry and academic institutions, and a 2019 manifesto promise of £9 billion in insulating our draughty homes.’
Hirigoyen said she hoped the chancellor’s budget announcement next week might provide ‘much needed detail on the way this government will practically “build back better”,’
Meanwhile, Jones said: ‘I welcome the recognition for “urgent action” from the prime minister and hope the announcements today are the first of many needed to address the shortcomings of the UK’s physical and social infrastructure.
‘However, I am extremely concerned by the proposal to enable even more commercial buildings to change to residential use without the need for a planning application. The Government’s own advisory panel referred to the homes created by this policy as “slums”. It is hard to reconcile the commitment to quality with expanding a policy that has delivered low-quality, unsustainable and overcrowded homes across England.’
Tom Holbrook, founding director of 5th Studio
Boris Johnson complains that ‘we are more slow’ in delivering housing than Germany or the Netherlands. His response mirrors that of previous Conservative governments in promising to slash regulation and ‘get the planners off our backs’ (David Cameron. 2012): and yet the Tories’ own review of buildout by Oliver Letwin, published only 18 months ago, establishes that housebuilding is not held back by planning but by absorption rates geared to maximising developers’ profits.
The real fix is apparent to all with any experience in housing - to restore the state as an active provider of much needed genuinely affordable housing. In both Germany and the Netherlands, the state acts as master developer, providing infrastructure, de-risking and parcelling out development land to a diverse range of tract developers, as well as building social housing. Both countries also have properly funded planning infrastructure, including the ability to plan at a regional and national scale. The UK has lacked these critical capacities for a generation.
Johnson channels Roosevelt’s New Deal, but our hollowed-out government lacks the capacity to deliver at scale. We seem doomed to repeat the same mantras without looking at the evidence.