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Jordan Lee: End Britain’s bulldozing bonanza to restore homes and cut carbon

Jordan Lee, the Conservative Environment Network's Nature Programme Manager

Britain bulldozes around 50,000 buildings every year. This is obscene in a country with a housing shortage and where the prospect of home ownership is increasingly distant. If the Conservative Party is to remain the party of aspiration and win over a new generation of voters, we must reverse these worrying trends.

The environmental cost of demolition is also significant. 25% of the UK’s emissions emanate from the buildings sector. The endless cycle of construction, demolition, and reconstruction wastes carbon locked in building materials. Marks and Spencer’s demolition and reconstruction of their flagship store on Oxford Street, for example, has been estimated to cause 40,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. To uphold the key Conservative pledge to reach net zero by 2050, we must stem this needless tide of destruction.

The Government has already granted consumers a new right to repair electrical appliances to cut waste. Why not extend this right to buildings and reduce the number condemned to demolition?

Currently, VAT is charged at 20% on most building refurbishment work, and yet new build properties are exempt. This provides a perverse incentive for developers to demolish existing structures rather than repair or repurpose existing ones. By cutting the cost of renovations, people would be incentivised to be creative with their use of space and transform neglected sites into community assets. Smaller construction companies are increasingly squeezed out of the new build property market. Cutting the cost of building renovations would help them to compete in an increasingly frenzied market.

To further clamp down on rampant rubble, the Government should grasp the nettle and re-examine our planning system. We need to build more thoughtfully and conserve the best of our built environment.

Too many of Britain’s best-loved buildings are falling apart at the seams, unable to cope with changes in the seasons, risking ruin. Increasingly extreme weather conditions, which cause the ground to shrink and swell, are responsible for cracking, subsidence, and even collapse. We should be proud of this country’s stringent protections for heritage sites, but we need to be more flexible in accepting innovative building solutions and energy efficiency improvements to protect them for future generations.

Insulation, double glazing, and heat-pump-ready infrastructure are a must. Provided renovations are not invasive to existing protected features, there is no reason why the policy of ‘permission in principle’ should not apply. Historic windows are a particularly pertinent example of this. Despite many sensitively designed, double-glazed modern alternatives, many are defeated by mountains of unnecessary paperwork and remain trapped in damp, draughty homes. The Government’s National Model Design Guide and listing system should be updated to reflect this.

We also need to look at the process for deciding which buildings are worth keeping. Currently, too many structures are thrown up, only to be torn down again. Most existing protections target historic buildings, contributing to poor building and design quality. The Government should consider adding a new ‘Grade III’ listing for larger new build properties. This should not make construction or the repurposing of old sites any more difficult but rather improve the quality of new and existing designs.

Of course, this is not to say that demolition is never needed. Where it is necessary, however, we should ensure that local communities and our environment benefit. Section 106 agreements provide a good template for this. These agreements are between local planning authorities and developers to allow new developments provided contributions are made to the local community. The Government should expand the use of these agreements to cover large-scale demolitions with a greater emphasis on green spaces and nature restoration. Longer-term we could look at a system of carbon credits to offset the cost of large-scale demolitions.

To win the next election, the Conservative Party needs to ensure that the prospect of home ownership is put back in the reach of the next generation. Addressing Britain’s annual bulldozing bonanza could play a vital part in this.


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