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No time for compromise

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The housing industry must not ease up on zero-carbon targets, writes Kieran Long

The downturn must not be used as an excuse to water down environmental targets. While many commentators are talking about the downturn as an unmatched opportunity to remodel the whole economy around low carbon, one professional institution, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, has called for a relaxation of zero-carbon targets for the housing industry, ‘given the financial constraints caused by the downturn’.

The RIBA, in contrast, has come out with a bullish statement supporting the target of 80 per cent carbon reduction by 2050, and is sensibly calling for a redefinition of biomass and district heating, which are inadequately provided for in the Code for Sustainable Homes. Both institutions were responding to the Definition of Zero-Carbon Homes and Non-Domestic Buildings consultation, which began at the end of 2008.

Both institutions imply that the greatest change will be wrought by planning and building-control changes. But my view is that the housing industry is stuck in the dark ages, and there needs to be root-and-branch treatment of the supply chain.

Big house-building is hurting, but now is not the time to let it off the hook. An industry that, broadly speaking, is inefficient, disinterested in quality, and incompetent at remaking our cities needs to be reformed from the ground up. Right now they have stopped all activity. They have the opportunity to start as a renewed industry, as long as professional institutions and others make it clear that the old models will not work.

There is so little innovation in the housing supply chain, so much conservatism, that I worry about easing up on green targets. What seems like a pragmatic decision in hard times could be the thin end of a wedge. The professional institutions must recognise the industry’s weakness and push for the highest standards possible.

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