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District heating pipes

Safe as Houses

Craig Dalzell – 17th March 2022

Scotland’s readiness for the effects of climate change, well…isn’t. That’s the conclusion of this week’s report from the Climate Change Committee which followed up from last year’s report saying that the Scottish Government wasn’t doing enough to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the climate emergency by saying now that the Government also isn’t doing enough to adapt to the impacts of climate change that we’ve already locked in. The consequences of this will be dire. I have spoken to officials in Local Authorities who have said that if nothing more is done to prevent harm, then by the middle of the century they’ll be either spending more than 100% of their LA budget on coastal defence alone or they’ll be forced to choose which parts of their region they must consign to the seas.

The fact that our houses and other buildings are badly lacking in this kind of future-proofing is a particularly dire aspect to this. In our Green New Deal blueprint in 2019 we identified that the task of retrofitting those buildings up to the standards we’ll need by 2045 to be the single largest and hardest part of the whole plan. This remains the case even if we settle on the kind of “Net Zero” plan that would decarbonise home heating but wouldn’t necessarily result in warmer homes and could even result in higher heating bills. We’ll soon be publishing a more detailed plan on how we should retrofit these buildings (Hint: dumping the costs onto homeowners who can neither afford the retrofits nor the fuel bills resulting from lack of them isn’t the answer) but there’s another problem in the construction sector that is currently making that retrofitting challenge even harder. We haven’t stopped constructing crap buildings.

Where retrofitting existing buildings is one of the hardest jobs of the Green New Deal, changing the way we build new buildings is one of the easiest – it’s largely a planning and legislative issue and could be managed through the Scottish Government and Local Authorities.

Essentially we need to start considering not what building quality needs to be now but what it needs to be in 2045 when we’re supposed to have completed our Scottish Green New Deal. 2045 isn’t very far away. Only 23 years from now. If you’re buying a new house today, it’s quite likely that you’ll still be paying off the mortgage then. And yet, that house – despite being brand new now – almost certainly will require an expensive retrofit at some point in that time and the developer who built this house already knows it but didn’t care. It is much easier to build these adaptions into the design phase than to retrofit them later so those developers get to save the few thousand pounds it would cost to build these adaptations into a new house at the point of construction by dumping the tens of thousands of pounds it will cost to retrofit later onto you. Their profit is your loss. And until you do do the retrofits, you have to live in a cold house with high heating bills.

This week, The Ferret published one of the most egregious examples of this practice where a developer outright ignored calls from locals to build houses to Net Zero standards and to include the electric heat pumps that will be needed in those houses within just a few years. But this practice is completely “normal” throughout Scotland. You can usually tell when a development does not meet  the climate specifications we deserve because if they did, they would use it as a selling point in their marketing. The silence speaks very loudly. Take this “build to rent” development in Glasgow, for instance. The tenants there won’t even have the power that a homeowner has to retrofit their own homes and will instead be at the mercy of their landlord doing it. Even more excuse for Scotland to introduce a series of Rent Controls based on the quality of these homes. If they don’t meet climate spec, tenants should be due a significant discount.

Or take this non-residential development in Blantyre. Lidl have proposed to demolish their current store – a building less than 40 years old – because it “doesn’t reflect the Lidl experience”. I asked South Lanarkshire Council if the new building would be constructed to zero-carbon principles and was directed to their planning website where (after a bit of trawling that I shall save my readers) I found that the short answer is “no”. Despite the addition of solar photovoltaic panels to the new store, there’s no indication that it will be built to higher insulation standards than is currently “normal”, and the construction materials themselves will be the same energy intensive glass, metal and concrete that we need to move away from as much as possible. No consideration appears to have been made to recover and reuse materials from the existing building so it can only be presumed that much of the embodied carbon of that building will be lost. Only Lidl themselves will know if they have planned for retrofits to this store or how much they may cost.

I have other examples – housing developments across the country, a new school in my village, office buildings in Edinburgh. I’m sure you do too and I would like very much to hear from you about them. We need to ramp up a pressure campaign to improve building regulations in Scotland so that we can get the warm, efficient and carbon-free homes and workplaces that we deserve now and so that we don’t need to bear even more of a burden for retrofitting buildings that developers gave us, knowing that they were inadequate.

You can help with this pressure. Send a letter to your MSP demanding that the government changes building standards and regulations so that we can start getting Green New Deal quality housing now – as I said earlier, this is entirely within the power of the Scottish Parliament to do now. You can also start paying attention to planning announcements in your area. When one appears, consider asking your local councillors (or prospective council candidates given that the election is approaching) the following questions:

1) Will this house/building be constructed to Green New Deal standards?

2) If not, has the developer promised to pay, in full, for all retrofits between now and 2045?

3) If not, has the developer promised to pay, in full, for the demolition this building and its replacement with one that meets adequate standards.

If they can only answer “yes” to question 3, then they should be asked why the developer cannot redesign the project now to avoid demolishing a building before its 25th birthday. If they can only say “yes” to question 2 then why can’t the developer pay up now and save themselves tens of thousands of pounds later?

And, of course, if they can’t say yes to any of those questions then the councillor should be asked why they are approving the project at all? Especially if they belong to one of the Local Authorities who have declared a climate emergency.

Scottish local elections are coming up in less than two months. I want every councillor running for election this year to pledge that they will not approve planning applications for new buildings that are likely to require retrofit before 2045. I want Scottish Government Ministers to promise to back them and to update buildings regulations accordingly. We shouldn’t have to accept anything less.

2 thoughts on “Safe as Houses”

  1. Norman Cunningham

    The really galling part of all this is that the technology to achieve the 2045 standards exists and at little extra cost from traditional carbon producing current methods. We could be creating a new industry and skilled workers in Scotland, utilising our forestry and glulam methods and prefabricating in a factory setting thus avoiding the extremes of winter weather. Top class homes and buildings, zero carbon, new skills and lots of jobs. All explained in detail in the book ‘Scotland 2070’ by Hillary Sillitto et al.

  2. How heartily I agree with the ‘crap houses’ still being built. Having self built a zero carbon house 15 years ago because we couldn’t buy what we wanted, I despair at the volume developments being built. And its barely more expensive to build to a passive house standard. Thanks for the Q’s for councillors…. useful.

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