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General election 2019: What’s in store for architects?

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Now the Conservative party has a majority in Parliament, it can push through its policies on everything from Brexit and housing to climate change and infrastructure

So what are the Tories’ plans and what do industry figures expect  – or fear – will happen next?

Brexit

The Tories have promised to swiftly take the UK out of the European Union, ideally by the end of next month. The party gave fewer details on how and what it would seek to negotiate by way of trade deals once Brexit has been delivered. 

RIBA president Alan Jones said: ‘Many people will remember this as the “Brexit election”. The Conservatives must now deliver on their promise to resolve the political crisis which has been paralysing wider society and the economy.

‘The RIBA has been clear that this involves developing trade deals which allow practices to access talent, goods and services, and will welcome further detail on how this will be achieved.

‘The new government must bring the country together by turning promises into action. We need critical investment to solve the housing crisis through high-quality planning and homes, initiatives to tackle climate change and complete reform of our fire and building safety regulations to keep people safe.’

Housing

In their manifesto, the Conservatives promised to deliver a million homes over the next five years. The party also said it would ‘expect’ all new streets to be tree-lined.

There’s little encouragement of the careful reuse of our cities’ existing buildings

But Joe Haire, director at White Red Architects, expressed concern as to what the drive to build might mean in terms of design. ‘While ambitious Tory targets for new housing are needed,’ he said, ‘it still feels the emphasis is too heavily on quantity rather than quality and we haven’t seen the end of the cramped office to residential conversions under permitted development.

‘There is little encouragement of the careful reuse of our cities’ existing buildings or, when building new, of good quality and flexible buildings which serve society better and for longer. Better, denser city fabric is both more environmentally and socially sustainable.’

Alex Ely, founding director at Mæ, said: Housing policy as expected is resolutely focused on ownership; maintaining the Right to Buy will continue to deplete our affordable housing stock and make any future refurbishment, renewal or regeneration programmes more problematic.

‘Extending the Help to Buy scheme will further fuel housebuilders’ profits. There is no mention of it in the manifesto but I guess we can assume that the disastrous policy of permitted development for office-to-residential conversion will remain and continue to deliver appalling, substandard housing.’

There is an odd fixation in the Conservative manifesto about local community decision

‘There is a commitment to delivery of “hundreds of thousand affordable homes”, which is welcome, but we really need a step-change in the volume of output to deal with our housing need and there’s no detail on the funding for this or who’s expected to deliver it.’

Ely added: ‘There is an odd fixation in the Conservative manifesto about local community decision-making on the style of housing. Our experience is that this isn’t really what concerns people, and issues of social and physical infrastructure are usually the big issues at consultation.’

Dinah Bornat, co-founder of ZCD Architects, said that the election result would make the ‘the fight for social value, children and play a bit tougher this morning’.

She told the AJ: ‘We’ve already demonstrated that there is nothing at a national level to support children’s rights, which means [former housing secretary] James Brokenshire’s claim that he would stop segregated play was empty and headline seeking.

‘The regressive Right to Buy and cross-subsidy housing models will continue to privatise homes and spaces in ways that impact children hardest. What it means to us, is our collective work will be more important than ever.’

But Dean Clifford, co-founder of London-focused developer Great Marlborough Estates, said: ‘The Conservatives have been right to focus on boosting owner-occupation in their manifesto, given homeownership remains the aspiration for the majority and any steps to help first time buyers must be welcomed.

‘However, the proposed stamp duty surcharge for overseas buyers risks hurting the London market just as it is beginning to recover and also sends a negative signal to international investors at a time when Britain should be outward-looking.’

Climate emergency

The Conservative Party made few explicit promises regarding climate change and the built environment in its manifesto, although it did say that ensuring homes were more energy efficient would be a good step. To achieve that the party promised to work towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and said it would spend £500 million on making ‘energy-intensive’ industries greener.

Yet for many, the general lack of focus on the environment was a key criticism of the Conservative campaign. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios co-founder Peter Clegg, a member of the Architects Declare steering group, said: ’The biggest loser in this election is the climate. Half of our crucial next 10 years will now be run by someone who’s voting record on environmental issues is abysmal.

‘Boris may well now negotiate a softer exit from Europe and put more money into social expenditure to keep his new found northern friends happy, but there is no sign he has any interest in climate change and biodiversity loss.

‘Like the USA, we now need to take hold of the issues at a local and grass-roots level. Keep on plugging away and the message may get through.’

The Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) added: ‘The Conservatives’ target of net zero by 2050 is unambitious and inadequate. In this climate emergency we must work collectively to ensure that the environment is placed higher up the political agenda.

‘This general election is part of a global pattern of political failure, with a disappointing first week at COP25 while global greenhouse gas emissions have increased 0.6 per cent over last year.

‘ACAN’s efforts will only increase in the face of political adversity. We must step outside of our silo to ensure the wider public understand the impact of our industry. We must all redouble our efforts and hold the government to account to ensure we see the radical change that is required by the science.’

Tom Bennett, architect at Studio Bark and convicted Extinction Rebellion protester, said: ‘The Tory party have a dismal environmental record and their manifesto pledges were woeful. We can expect more deregulation, privatisation, delay, false solutions and further environmental destruction.

‘Those of us concerned about the future habitability of the planet and making a difference where we can – here and now in this country – have a serious fight on our hands.’

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said the general election was the first that ‘had the climate crisis at its heart’.

‘No longer the preserve of a single party or associated with any one shade of the political spectrum, we know that voters of all political persuasions care about tackling climate change, and every single manifesto had climate promises in response,’ she commented.

‘Whatever happens now with Brexit, it is essential that our environmental protections are preserved and further strengthened. Housing and infrastructure were also major issues in this election, so it’s crucial that we recognise the benefits of tackling all these priorities together and ensure that our industry rises to the challenge of delivering a net-zero carbon built environment.’

Charles Bettes, managing director of architect gpad london, said the profession was in a ‘great place to play a key part in working towards the solution by becoming ambassadors of sustainability and good architecture within the design team. However we need proper support from the new government.

‘There needs to be swift policy change that will enable us to prioritise retrofit over new build. When it comes to VAT, new-build is currently zero-rated, whereas retrofitting is still taxed. The gap needs to be closed if the new leaders are truly committed to fighting the climate emergency.’

Dave Worsley, director of the Active Building Centre, said: ‘The Conservative majority could mean good things for a renewed built environment, including a refreshed plan for investment in infrastructure and a revitalised, clean industrial strategy.  

‘In the face of man-made climate change, the new government will have to act quickly. COP26 in November [2020] is a chance for the UK to take up the baton and show its ambitions and successes to date.’

Infrastructure

The Conservative Party promised an ‘infrastructure revolution’ in their manifesto, saying it would spend an extra £100 billion on infrastructure. However, it did not say whether it would scrap the HS2 mega-project. 

Transport for the North chief executive Barry White said: ‘We’ve been encouraged by promises to fully commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail, and invest in our strategic and local roads. That, and tackling the challenge of making our networks greener and more inclusive, will be critical in the coming months and years.

‘There are big decisions ahead that will change the fabric of the North – not least how our railways are run and delivery of HS2. We stand ready, on behalf of the North, to work with Boris Johnson and the new government to ensure the much-needed investment is delivered to help rebalance the UK economy.’ 

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