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Historic England backs calls to slash VAT on retrofits

House index creditrickmccullagh

Historic England has called on the government to slash VAT on renovation in a bid to remove a major brake on retrofit work  

Just weeks before new chancellor Rishi Sunak announces his 2020 budget, the government’s heritage watchdog and adviser has made a public demand for the tax on refurbishment, currently set at 20 per cent, to be reduced.

The plea echoes the central plank of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign – and follows a similar call from the RICS. Historic England announced the demand alongside the release of ‘game-changing’ new research into the embodied carbon of the nation’s existing built heritage.

The study, There’s No Place Like Old Homes: Reuse and Recycle to Reduce Carbon (see attached), forms part of the organisation’s wider drive to end the ‘fast fashion for buildings’ and to encourage retrofitting of existing stock instead. It urges a new approach to be taken to ‘managing change to the built environment’ and says steps must be taken to ‘prioritise our existing buildings by making refurbishment and reuse of existing buildings worthwhile, compared to knocking them down’.

Speaking out about the discrepancy between tax on new-builds and refurbishment, a spokesperson said: ‘The heritage sector has long argued that the current application of VAT is a disincentive for the custodians of our historic environment to invest in and care for much-loved homes.

‘[The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission made a similar recommendation in their report. With growing evidence that reusing buildings would be a way to decrease our carbon footprint in the face of the climate crisis, it’s clear to us that the current VAT system needs reconsidering.

‘We are drawing government policy-makers’ attention to the evidence for and against change to the system.’

The move was welcomed by heritage campaigners. A spokesperson for the Victorian Society said: ‘It is great news that Historic England is now also calling for VAT on retrofits to be slashed.

‘Taking into account the issue of embodied energy in buildings and the mounting climate emergency, this is an increasingly urgent issue for the government to address.’

There’s No Place Like Old Homes was drafted for key stakeholder group the Historic Environment Forum. It also includes a wealth of data that Historic England says must become a key factor in decision-making if the government is to meet its target of being carbon neutral by 2050.

The report calls, in particular, for a rethink of how inbuilt energy is measured and a move towards a whole-life carbon approach. The organisation said: ‘[By] not counting embodied carbon, we underestimate the entire carbon emissions of a new-build by up to 31 per cent.

‘Compared to refurbishing a traditional Victorian terrace, a new building of the same size produces up to 13 times more embodied carbon.

‘This equates to around 16.4 tonnes of CO₂, which is the equivalent of the emissions released by driving 60,000km, or 300 times round the M25, in a large petrol car.’

Historic England’s chief executive Duncan Wilson said: ‘Recycling plastic bottles is a normal part of our daily lives, but reusing our existing historic buildings would be a much more powerful way to improve our environmental impact. Despite this, reusable buildings are demolished every year and new buildings, which require a huge amount of carbon to build, replace them.

‘Investigations need to continue, but the results from this year’s Heritage Counts report show that reusing and responsibly upgrading historic buildings is good for the environment and essential to meet our ambitious carbon targets.’

Hisdtoric england carbon comparison

Hisdtoric england carbon comparison

Recommendations: meeting net zero

1. We must encourage longer lifespans in buildings through refurbishment and repair and maintenance. However, the UK’s VAT system disincentivises refurbishment and repair and maintenance while incentivising new development. Current VAT rules on construction are out of date and stand in the way of reducing UK carbon emissions. Changing VAT rules to encourage the reuse of buildings is the best way to start making that change to meet our 2050 targets.

2. Climate change is the single most important issue of our time, and buildings are a key source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. The government, research councils, professional bodies and industry should create a joint platform/a centre for scientific research and excellence that aims to understand and share information, guidance and evidence on what works and what doesn’t work for reducing carbon in buildings; in particular in existing buildings, which constitute 80 per cent of all buildings that will exist in 2050.

3. We must focus on using and reusing our historic assets to fully exploit the opportunities that already exist. If we reuse what is already here, we can avoid emitting carbon – embodied carbon accounts for up to a third of the carbon emissions of a new building.

We must count and measure carbon in buildings more accurately

Historic buildings are a constant source of new homes through conversion and change of use, but there are many assets that are under-used, vacant and at risk of demolition. The heritage sector needs to identify and quantify the opportunities for reuse available in the built historic environment.

4. We must count and measure carbon in buildings more accurately, only then will we take the right actions to reduce carbon in the built environment. The design and development of an ongoing data collection programme is needed to address the data gaps uncovered in this year’s research.

5. The development of a life-cycle assessment methodology that can be applied to refurbishment projects for historic buildings without the need for bespoke, technical research such as that of the Heritage Counts 2019 research is necessary if we are to make informed decisions on how to reduce carbon in the built historic environment

6. A whole building solution must centre on the users of buildings. To reduce carbon in buildings we must change behaviours of occupiers. This year’s Heritage Counts research has highlighted how difficult it is for non-technical users to access the existing evidence base and information.

The heritage sector will need to work closely with industry, policy, regulators and professional bodies to empower non-technical occupiers and custodians of historic assets to make the right decisions for themselves and their buildings. Ready access to bespoke, non-technical information, advice and guidance is needed, as well as access to skilled professionals.

7. We must encourage retrofit through guidance, advice, new research and innovative practices. The heritage sector must continue to disseminate advice and guidance but must also work with partners to develop new dissemination channels and audiences for its best practice advice and guidance.

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3


Readers' comments (5)

  • It makes you wonder why the heritage brigade were so intent on supporting demolition of Robin Hood Gardens, with the huge carbon implications that entailed. I hope they don't pretend they didn't realise what was involved.

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  • I wonder who Paul Finch means by "the heritage brigade", given that so many conservationists, including English Heritage's advisory committee, favoured the listing and preservation of Robin Hood Gardens.

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  • Paul has a journalist's grasp of past events that helps make good copy. I led the 'heritage brigade' that evaluated the case for listing RHG. While not recommending listing, we explicitly did not support demolition either. Designation is to protect historic importance, not prevent demolition. Paul knows that really.
    Anyway, water under the bridge. The 'heritage brigade' correctly presses for a credible tax regime. But we also need to press for a more intelligent approach to the adaptation of historic places. Improving the thermal performance of buildings is one way of reducing carbon emissions. We should assess any consequent loss of historic significance objectively and not not allow our 'passion' for preservation to deny the greater priority of the climate emergency.
    'Heritage Declares'(heritagedeclares.org) is an initiative to raise the awareness of what constructive conservation can achieve. I commend its 10 principles to Paul and all those who strive for an intelligent approach to the conservation of our built heritage in these times.
    Sign up!
    Steven Bee, Chair Historic Towns and Villages Forum

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  • This support on the long-running VAT absurdity is hugely welcome.
    As for the heritage brigade (full declaration: I am a paid-up member), I rather thought the V&A was about heritage, being full of old stuff. Yet it has acquired a slice of Robin Hood Gardens for history. And I'm pretty sure Paul Finch will find the heritage brigade has supported the rescue and retention of buildings like Preston Bus Garage or Park Hill. In fact, he could even check out the 20th Century Society. Or isn't that allowed to be a member of the brigade?

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  • I very much consider C20 Society (of which I'm Director) as being part of the "heritage brigade", and don't see that as a pejorative term . Unlike HE, we fought hard for the listing of Robin Hood Gardens, (which we thought was justified by its architectural and historic interest-- the only relevant criteria). We also argued that it could be upgraded and provide good quality C21st housing, and pointed out the carbon implications of demolition. We regret the fact that so much of the fabric of Balfron Tower (currently being refurbished) has ended up in the skip, even though it was Grade II* listed--that's been bad in both heritage and environmental terms.
    We are signed up to RetroFirst, and are delighted that HE has now recognised that "climate change is the single most important issue of our time" and is looking at how they can help building owners reduce carbon emissions. The case studies (described above) are helpful, but just a start. It would be great if they could look next at the statistics for a post war Brutalist office block, which would have a very high level of embodied energy, and would be challenging to upgrade.
    Getting the balance right when improving the thermal performance of listed buildings is especially tricky for C20 ones. If your main façade is entirely glazed, then replacing that glazing will have far more impact than substituting double glazed units for single ones in a set of sash windows in a Georgian house, for instance. An exterior cladding on that Brutalist office block would be extremely damaging.
    HE's call for a centre for scientific research and excellence on this is timely. Let's hope the funding is forthcoming now, as its incredibly urgent.

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