The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan was published last week, to criticism and fanfare in equal measure. But does it face down its critics or live up to expectations? Here we analyse the impact of this Plan on housing and property and outline the areas where the sector needs to take action.
Following the publications of the Clean Growth Strategy and the Industrial Strategy, the 25-Year Environment Plan forms part of a triptych of policy that sets out the first coherent environmental vision we have seen for nearly a decade. While critics have stressed the lack of legal commitments, the publications nonetheless reveal a growing sustainability agenda and a recognition that environmental, social and economic improvements can be achieved simultaneously.
So, how much impact is it likely to have on the housing sector? There are some important signals for housing, but also a few disappointing absences when it comes to reducing environmental impact. Here are five key messages from The 25 Year Plan:
1. Natural Capital and ‘Net Environmental Gain’
An important part of the Plan is its promise to put the natural environment ‘at the heart’ of housing development proposals. To achieve this, the idea of ‘net environmental gain’ is proposed, whereby new housing developments have a positive impact on the local environment (including wildlife, green space provision and air and water quality). A key part of the economic case for the ‘net environmental gain’ approach to housing developments is the boost to ‘natural capital’ that it would trigger. Natural capital, a measure of the value that nature provides to people, receives a lot of attention in the Plan. Though it is notoriously hard to quantify, it can at least provide a flexible framework that can be used to capture the value of environmental services – including clean air and water, natural resources and biodiversity – that might otherwise be disregarded. The fact that a natural capital approach is being embraced at government level is a sign that it may increasingly become factored into planning decisions in future.
2. Green Infrastructure
The Plan promises to increase ‘green infrastructure’ (i.e. harnessing nature and using it as an infrastructural system, for example as parks, green spaces and flood protection) in order to boost both environmental and public health. There are numerous studies on the positive impact of green spaces on wellbeing, so the promise of ‘a national framework of green infrastructure standards’ is very much welcome. There are promising indications that the Government will help housing providers and local authorities to assess and expand their green infrastructure provision.
3. Air Pollution
The Government has come under fire repeatedly for its lack of significant action on air pollution, and unfortunately the Plan makes no dramatic new promises on this front, but the issue is clearly still on the agenda. Our Review of sustainability in the housing sector found that nationally, landlords are implementing just 11% of sustainable transport initiatives, so there is enormous potential for improvement here.
4. Flood Risk
As the Plan acknowledges, flood risk is due to rise in future as temperatures increase and weather patterns become more extreme. The Plan’s proposed solution is natural flood management, which has great potential for enhancing the local environment while simultaneously increasing climate resilience; it is therefore vital that we act now to improve the resilience of our homes and promote biodiversity. Measures can include tree planting and bank restoration, and are due to be supported by clearer Planning Practice Guidance and potential changes to the National Planning Policy Framework and Building Regulations, so this will be something to look out for. Find more on flood risk awareness and mitigation in our blog.
5. Resource Efficiency
The headline-grabbing announcement of the Plan was that ‘avoidable’ plastic packaging will be phased out by 2042, but there are other references to resource efficiency that have greater significance to housing providers. Notable mentions include improved ‘infrastructure’ and management of residual waste; more efficient water use; and reduced energy usage and carbon footprint of the UK’s housing stock.
The Sustainable Homes View: What is the impact for the housing sector?
Taking the Environment Plan into consideration alongside the Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy and the Hackitt Review into Building Regulations and Fire Safety then the impact for the housing sector will be huge.
Over the last 7 years the sector has seen a major tragedy; fall in standards; constrained finances; an uncertain regulatory landscape and a lot more. In more recent years, because of consolidation in the social housing sector, there has been a brain drain of sustainability expertise – precisely the expertise that is needed to respond and prepare for this new policy landscape. Whatever your political leanings the Government is now presenting its vision for a green, sustainable Britain – and the housing sector as a whole needs to respond.
Policy and Standards
There is a perfect storm of policy on the horizon – a new Housing Bill, Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy, The Review of Building Regulations, the 25 Year Environment Strategy. Is the sector prepared? Having seen the reduction of sustainability expertise in the sector over the last 2 years our view is that resource must be put into place to deal with this new landscape. Interestingly the plan contained this line ‘High environmental standards for all new builds.’ Housing providers, local authorities and businesses all have a role to play in air quality, by facilitating sustainable transport methods in particular. Bike storage facilities, cycle routes, pedestrian areas, shower facilities at work and electric car charging points can all help to decrease the volume of petrol and diesel vehicles on the roads.
Resilience, Climate and Flooding
This plan and resultant plans will put pressure on development teams, housebuilders and multi-tenure landlords to upgrade properties to deal with future climate. Budgets are already stretched trying to respond to the energy efficiency and fire safety agenda. Either the Government must fund these improvements seriously or housing providers of all tenures must start identifying ‘sustainability measures’ as key budget lines in the coming years
Natural Capital, Green Infrastructure and Net Gain
If done right, flood management, built environment and landscaping can be combined avoiding huge civil engineering costs, creating the environment we need and enhancing property values (see Berkeley Homes). However, this is the area where in house teams often have the least expertise and where plans to have a better natural environment can meet the biggest resistance from development and property managers desperately trying to keep service charges and maintenance costs down. The sector has to embrace this and not resist it. A great example from outside of the sector is the greening approach M+S have taken with their stores. Housebuilders of all kinds can expect more pressure from local authorities. Here at Sustainable Homes we incorporate natural capital measurements into our SHIFT Assessments, and will be sharing our analysis and advice on the approach throughout the year.
Maximising resource efficiency
As our research has shown, the sector is inefficient in its use of resources. Quite rightly plastic use has gained the most column inches, but the proposals will have an impact on the businesses that develop property not just those people who live in them. SHIFT has for over a decade measured and scored those who make recycling easier for residents in their properties.
Together with the Clean Growth Strategy and Environmental Strategy, this Plan marks the beginning of a new sustainability vision. It sets out a broad, positive framework for a cleaner, healthier, more resilient environment, but feels light on concrete policies and legally binding obligations. It therefore very much remains to be seen whether the 25 Year Environment Plan really does deliver a ‘cleaner, greener country for us all’. What is clear from the Plan though is that it makes social and economic sense to take a sustainable approach that puts the health of the public and the environment first. It is now up to all of us – as individuals, businesses, communities and housing providers – to hold Government accountable for its promises, drive forward environmental improvements and demonstrate what a positive impact they can have for all.
e.g. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/intro/docs/Health%20and%20Social%20Benefits%20of%20Nature%20-%20Final%20Report%20Main%20sent.pdf https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23613211