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Can a Labour government build more homes without exacerbating climate breakdown?

By Paul Brannen, former MEP 2014-19

With 40 per cent of global climate emissions sourced from the built environment, a future Labour government will need to be alert to the danger that its welcome pledge to build 1.5 million homes could exacerbate climate breakdown. The good news is that the exact opposite is also possible: every desperately needed new home could also help address the climate crisis.

Why is the built environment such a major cause of climate breakdown? Concrete, steel, bricks and breeze blocks can only be manufactured using large amounts of energy, energy which is still predominately sourced from the burning of fossil fuels. Concrete is an acute problem because, as well as the energy needed, the manufacturing process of extracting the lime from the limestone triggers a chemical reaction resulting in the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. In fact, concrete is responsible for a staggering eight per cent of total global carbon emissions. Steel is almost as problematic but is partly redeemed by its high recycling rates. Currently, virtually everything we build has an unnecessarily large carbon footprint.

The CO2 emissions do not cease once construction is complete, as buildings in the UK typically need to be heated for more than half the year and, increasingly, cooled for the rest of the year due to warmer summers. Again, this is mainly done using energy sourced from fossil fuels.  In this case, the solution is much better insulation but, even our newbuilds use far greater energy than those in comparable countries.

[Global CO2 emissions by sector – source UN Environmental Global Status Report 2017]

[Global CO2 emissions by sector – source UN Environmental Global Status Report 2017]

Is there then a material out there that we could use as a substitute for concrete, steel, brick and block? Yes: Timber! Scotland, Canada, the USA and the Nordic countries build 80 per cent of their family homes with timber frames. But England builds less than 20 per cent. Does it matter? Yes. Timber’s carbon footprint is considerably lower than most construction materials, plus it also stores carbon – a virtue that will be of increasing importance in achieving net zero.

Recent developments with a material known as engineered timber (or mass timber in North America) mean that it is now possible to build at height and at scale with timber in urban settings. Labour-led Hackney Council, has the largest concentration of engineered timber buildings in the world – including flats, offices, a cinema and a church.

[Murray Grove, Hackney, London - the world’s first modern engineered timber tower at nine storeys, built in 2009, Waugh Thistleton Architects]

[Murray Grove, Hackney, London – the world’s first modern engineered timber tower at nine storeys, built in 2009, Waugh Thistleton Architects]

Professor Michael Ramage of the University of Cambridge calculated that erecting a 300-square-metre, four-storey student residence in wood generated only 126 tonnes of CO2 emissions. If it had been made with concrete the tally would have risen to 310 tonnes. If steel had been used emissions would have topped 498 tonnes. Indeed, the building can be viewed as “carbon negative” as there is the equivalent of 540 tonnes of CO2 stored in the wood, resulting in a long-term subtraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.

A switch to building more with wood rightly raises questions around the supply of sustainable timber, forests, biodiversity, land availability, fire risk and timber builds. I have set out to answer these questions  in detail in my forthcoming book Timber! How wood can help save the world from climate breakdown. Suffice to say the construction industry can provide answers to these questions.  

Hopefully a Labour government will be up for the switch to timber for the sake of the climate. If so, what should they do to encourage a greater use of timber in construction? Six specific steps should be promoted by an incoming Labour government:

1. Implement the Environmental Audit Committee’s proposal to legislate for mandatory whole-life carbon assessment of all new buildings, including the amount of stored carbon, as part of the planning permission process.

2. Set maximum standards for the carbon footprints of new builds and their energy use, which can then be tightened over time as we aim for net zero in 2050.

3. Incentivise the use of nature-based materials such as timber in construction, including insulation, in part by recognising that the storage of carbon in buildings is a climate benefit.

4. Facilitate education about the use of nature-based materials across the whole of the construction-value chain.

5. Increase the home-grown sustainable wood supply by increasing commercial forest planting.

6. Implement the current government’s 2023 Timber in Construction Roadmap which includes working with industry and academia to identify opportunities and barriers to the use of timber in retrofit and promote best practice and innovation by 2027.

Labour is right to state that there is no magic money tree. There is, however – when it comes to tackling climate breakdown – a magic timber tree. A Labour government can deliver the homes the country desperately needs, and at the same time turn the built environment into a carbon sink rather than a carbon emitter. A win-win for Labour, the country and the climate.

[There are 1,000 tonnes of carbon safely stored in the timber used to construct the new Founder’s Building at the University of Washington. This climate benefit was recognised, monetised and sold for $150,000].

[There are 1,000 tonnes of carbon safely stored in the timber used to construct the new Founder’s Building at the University of Washington. This climate benefit was recognised, monetised and sold for $150,000].

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Timber! How wood can help save the world from climate breakdown will be published in June 2024 and can be pre-ordered https://www.waterstones.com/book/timber/paul-brannen/9781788217354

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We Need to End National-Grid Lock

There are two existential threats to our country’s future: tackling the climate emergency and fixing Britain’s housing crisis. Future generations will not look kindly on us if we let these two systemic issues run on unresolved for another decade. They might seem like two distinct challenges, but they’re connected by one key piece of infrastructure: the National Grid.

Two Critical Priorities: Housing & Energy

In my hometown of Bracknell, the previous Tory council oversaw anaemic house building. Last year, only 390 houses were built. The situation for social and affordable housing is far worse. From 2017 to 2022, Bracknell Forest built only 8 homes for social rent. Meanwhile, 1,690 families are stuck on the council’s housing waitlist. 1.2 million families are on waiting lists throughout England.

Now, with a Labour council leading Bracknell since the local elections, there is real hope for change. But grappling the housing crisis requires national, as well as local leadership. And with a Tory government crippled by NIMBY activists in its own ranks, it is clear Rishi Sunak has no leadership to give on the issue.

Nationally, Labour has set forth a bold set of proposals to get Britain building, including reforming planning laws and putting an end to so-called “hope value” blocking public procurement.

Energy policy also requires both local and national leadership. Labour has ambitious plans to retrofit and insulate existing housing stock, to make it more energy efficient, and they will create GB Energy, a publicly-owned energy company focused on renewables.

At a local level, it is great to see Labour embracing co-operative and community energy schemes, which will empower communities and drive local economic growth.

Unlocking Grid Capacity

Tackling both climate change and the housing crisis require us to face up to a significant challenge.  The capacity of the National Grid is far too low, and creating new connections takes far too long. Any new house puts increased strain on the electricity grid; only compounded by the transition to electric cars, heat pumps and other green technologies. And new onshore wind farms and solar panels need to be actually connected to the grid if they’re going to help us reach Net Zero by 2050.

John Pettigrew, the Chief Executive of the National Grid, has said that “we will need to build about seven times as much infrastructure in the next seven or eight years than we built in the last 32”. Strategic planners have suggested the grid needs £54 billion of investment to meet green goals.

Housing projects are already being delayed or rejected because of local shortfalls in National Grid connectivity. The National Grid currently operates a first-come-first-served system for connecting new projects, which means any delays have a knock-on effect – and ready-to-go projects are facing years-long delays.

One problem is that expanding the National Grid to build more homes also requires planning permission. And just as house building can attract local controversy, so too can projects to expand the grid. An incoming Labour government needs to be ready for this.

The other major issue is, of course, money. That’s why it’s so welcome to see Labour committing to spend £28 billion on green investment by the mid-point of next parliament. A proportion of that will need to be spent on upgrading the National Grid.

As Keir Starmer said when unveiling Labour’s green agenda, “we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and start building things and run towards the barriers – the planning system, the skills shortages, the investor confidence, the grid.”

Only a Labour Government can show the leadership we need to end a National Grid-lock.


Peter Swallow

Peter Swallow is Chair of Ealing Central and Acton CLP and a researcher at Durham University

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Can sub-dividing properties help to meet housing need within carbon budgets?

All those engaged in the debate about the shortage of decent housing, and lend support to the building of new houses, should be taking into account the carbon emitted in housebuilding and the associated services and infrastructure.  “Building not blocking” might be a great electioneering slogan but suggests the Labour is looking to side step the need to reduce carbon emissions. 

Embodied and operational carbon attributable to housing is a significant contributor to the UK carbon budget and all housing strategies should include measures to reduce this to zero.  Research led by Dr Zu Ermgassen, from the University of Kent has shown that the emissions from building 300,000 houses per year would amount to 113% of the country’s whole carbon budget. He concludes that, “…England can’t go on building new houses forever, and needs to start thinking about better and more systematic solutions as to how we are going to house everyone within our environmental limits”.

These findings mirrored those of the UK Green Building Council Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework 2019 which points out that, “Annual embodied emissions alone are currently higher than the Green Construction Board’s target for total built environment emissions by 2050.” And it is far more urgent to reduce embodied carbon that, being emitted in the short term, stays in the atmosphere while operational carbon from new and existing stock can be avoided or mitigated in the medium and longer term.

The Communities Select Committee looked at housing and concluded that,  “To meet its target to eradicate the UK’s net contribution to climate change by 2050, the government should embrace every opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. It should be ambitious in setting carbon reduction targets for the built environment both during construction and in use (emphasis added). The building regulations should set more stringent energy performance targets for homes to take into account achievable levels of energy efficiency. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC – or prefabrication) should be used to deliver more efficient homes now to avoid costly retrofitting of homes later to comply with more rigorous energy efficiency targets.”

But there is no sign the Department will rise to the challenge of its own Select Committee. The latest revision to the building regulations does not include embodied carbon since it is not considered to be a matter of safety or how the buildings are used.

Homes England (HE) Strategic Plan 2023 -2028 sees the need for an, “indicator to be developed on embodied carbon of HE supported development.” But HE also say that will be the job of the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who have consistently kicked it down the road, to be dealt with after the Future Buildings Standard comes into effect in 2025. Progress is being made on developing the reliable metric that DLUHC use an excuse for the delay but meanwhile, new building continues using materials with high carbon intensity.  At the same time new housing is skewed towards the private demand for larger and instantly under-occupied homes rather than the general housing need for 2 bedroomed properties requiring less carbon to both build and maintain.

This is a challenge to those who think that building 300,000 new dwellings in England each year is the way to address the housing crisis/shortage, particularly if these involve new settlements with even higher carbon costs for infrastructure.  Furthermore, buildings with added PhotoVoltaics (PV) may represent the best chance of reaching ‘carbon negative’ or ‘energy positive’ given the problems being faced by transport, manufacturing, power generation, agriculture and the military. Finally, climate justice dictates that the UK has to lead while expecting less from countries that never benefitted to the same degree from cheap fossil fuels.

If new housing is to continue, there will have to be a scaling up of the use of timber (subject to trusted sustainable supplies), stone, slate, lime based mortar and renders, and low/zero carbon renewably powered MMC.  There are unlikely to be low carbon substitutes for the cement, steel, aluminium, glass and the concrete being used in services like roads and drains. 

Rather than expecting new building to solve the housing crisis, and continuing to complain about the planning system, the shortage and cost of suitable land on which to build houses, the cost of materials and the shortage of suitably skilled labour, there should be greater focus on the potential for sub-dividing existing under-occupied properties.

There are about 28m dwellings and about 27m households, confirmed by the English Housing Survey research which estimates there to be 1.2m empty or underused homes.  That research does not reveal the ubiquity of under-occupancy where about 50% of bedrooms are not being used as such.  Under-occupation is not just confined to villages and rural areas where the most common form of housing has two spare bedrooms. One way to redistribute the housing space that already exists, almost all of which is in need of a deep energy refit during the next decade, is to concentrate resources, finances, fiscal policy and regulations on subdividing existing properties.   Research carried out for The Intergenerational Foundation suggested that there are over 4m dwellings suitable for sub-division that would amount to over 12 years’ supply of low carbon dwellings if the need is for 300,000 per year.  The need is greater for these smaller dwellings but the process would include down-sizing that would release a good number of family size dwellings.

In 2016 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People received evidence that there could be as many as 8 million households looking to downsize and waiting for attractive smaller dwellings to become available.  Some of these households could be keen to downsize–in-place enabled through sub-divisions, some of which could accommodate some of the increasing number of concealed households comprising young adults living reluctantly with their parents, and provide them with greater independence and financial security than enjoyed as lodgers.  The increase in residential densities could also fit the agenda of those advocating for 20min or lifetime neighbourhoods. The many other co-benefits are described in this blog.

A requirement is set out in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 (as amended) to grant planning permissions for sufficient serviced plots to balance the registered demand for self or custom build housing. Without a serious review this statutory requirement will remain unrealistic, little known and discredited.  However, if those languishing on the statutory self-build registers, with diminishing prospects of being found a serviced plot, can assist in this process of sub-division  (by ‘custom-splitting’), then the transition to low, zero, and then negative carbon housing could have multiple benefits.  Councils could assist in this process by keeping a register of those with space to spare they would ready and willing to share. Grants and/or loans could be made available for sub-divisions to cover the costs of feasibility studies, surveys, specifications and planning and building regulation applications.  These upfront costs could be recovered as a charge against the properties were one or both to be sold on.

Daniel Scharf MRTPI is a director/volunteer at one Planet Abingdon Climate Emergency Centre and blogs at www.dantheplan.blogspot.com


  1.  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800922002245
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Let’s take action and act together – the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury

In recent years, many policy-makers have recognised that people need to be put at the heart of decision-making on long-term challenges like social care and climate change. At local, regional and national level, citizens’ juries and assemblies have been instigated to enable ordinary citizens to deliberate and reach conclusions together. Here in the North of England, a first-of-its-kind Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury has recently made 19 recommendations to the social housing sector. So why was a Jury needed, what has the process involved, and what have tenants recommended?

A quarter of the North’s carbon emissions come from our existing homes. If we’re to meet the challenge of net zero, that needs to change. That means upgrading homes to make them as energy efficient as possible and transitioning home heating to renewable sources. It’s a huge challenge – we estimate over 4million homes across the North will need energy efficiency works by 2035.

That’s 4million homes, personal spaces, that will require change: the prospect of potentially disruptive works that might mean clearing your loft, having scaffolding around your house, and needing to redecorate afterwards. However considerate the tradespeople are, that’s a prospect most of us wouldn’t relish.

The Northern Housing Consortium’s members – councils, housing associations and ALMOs across the North – told us that the fact that ‘these are people’s homes’ was top of their minds when considering retrofit – they saw meeting the challenge of net zero as much as a tenant engagement issue as an asset management issue.

So we came to the conclusion that tackling climate change in the North’s homes and neighbourhoods needed to start by listening to the people who live in those homes and neighbourhoods – and the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury was born.

Five of our members – First Choice Homes Oldham, Karbon Homes, Salix Homes, Thirteen and Yorkshire Housing – worked with the NHC to bring deliberative democracy to the social housing sector. Shared Future CIC brought their extensive experience of citizens juries and assemblies, and we established an expert Oversight Panel to ensure the independence and integrity of the process.

7,500 tenants across the North were invited to get involved, and from the expressions of interest received, a Jury of 30 tenants was selected, using random stratified selection to ensure they reflected the diversity of the population of tenants across the North, and a range of attitudes to climate change.

The Jury met for 30 hours over the Summer, taking evidence from over 20 expert commentators, to answer the question set for them by the Oversight Panel – ‘How can tenants, social housing providers and others work together to tackle climate change in our homes and neighbourhoods?’  Commentators included academics, technical experts, fellow tenants, housing association representatives and a Government minister.

This was an intensive process. The Jury gave up their time to go on this journey together, and reflected that they had:

Brought together different levels of knowledge, experience and different opinions to create shared understanding and shared solutions in the form of recommendations that we have all worked hard to create and agree upon’.

The recommendations are comprehensive, and cover four themes:

  • Recommendations on retrofit technology
  • Recommendations on costs and managing disruptions to tenants
  • Education, raising awareness, communications and housing association collaboration
  • Tackling climate change in our neighbourhoods.

On technology, tenants concluded that landlords needed to take into account the urgency of climate change: ‘We are running out of time’. The jury wanted landlords to speed things up, whilst keeping an open mind about how technology might develop in future. The quality of installation was very important, and tenants wanted to see the best quality of technology used, with landlords working to ‘optimum standards’, and independent inspection of completed work. Residents recognised that ‘new skills are needed’ and suggested that housing associations should be proactive and look to train and employ their own skilled workforce.

Throughout the Jury’s deliberations, costs were a real concern. Tenants wanted assurances that the huge cost of retrofit wouldn’t push rents up; were keen to ensure that retrofit works delivered on the promise of lower energy bills, and that residents weren’t left footing bills for redecoration. They made practical suggestions – for example, the Jury was concerned that residents might experience fuel poverty as they adjusted to the most efficiency way to use new heating technologies and suggested a pot of money that could help people who found themselves in this situation.

Disruption was a real worry, and the Jury made practical suggestions to minimise this, calling for clear and timely information from their landlords, with named regular contacts who could work with them throughout the process. Tenants asked for clarity about the input that would be required from them – stressing that they can’t take time off work without notice: ‘Full disclosure from both sides, on all matters, will help efficiency, lessen delays and be most cost-effective.’

It was clear that Jurors had learnt lots through the process, and they were keen that awareness was raised with everyone in their communities – so that residents had ‘the information to be able to make their own decisions’. The Jury stressed the importance of good communication, sharing progress and being open about delays and problems. They wanted to see housing associations working together and with councils and other agencies.

Jurors were clear that tackling climate change didn’t end at the front door and made a series of recommendations around the use of green spaces, highlighting the potential for growing food, for collaborating with local businesses like supermarkets; and for showcasing action taken by tenants

This was a hugely inspiring process – and it’s difficult to summarise the breadth of insights and wisdom that the Jury process elicited. Read the Jury’s recommendations, and take the Jury’s advice: ‘Go forward with an open mind, listen to what we have to say and above all – let’s take action and act together’.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Brian Robson</span></strong>
Brian Robson

Brian is the Executive Director (Policy and Public Affairs), Northern Housing Consortium.

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The Great Tory Planning Power Grab

Recent planning reforms by this government are nothing else than a power grab, and risk future housing and our response to the climate emergencywrites Councillor Johnson Situ.

It takes something special to unite councils (of all political colours), planning bodies and campaigners in almost uniform condemnation. In recent weeks, MHCLG has reached that feat with a string of announcements and reforms to planning, which as ill-judged as they are impractical. Robert Jenrick has given these proposals lofty names such as ‘Planning for the Future’ or ‘Right to Regenerate’ but scratch beneath the surfaceand this is nothing more than a power grab from a national government intent on deregulating planning at the cost of genuinely affordable homes being built and our ability to respond to the Climate Emergency.   

Much has been written about the impact of another top-down reform to the planning system. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the planning system does need reform. Secondly, a decade of cuts to local government has meant that the planning head count has significantly decreased over the years. Yet we must recognise the plan making process can be made far more nimble and better at including communities from the onset if planning departments are adequately resourced.

However, a recent report from the LGA which showed that more than a million homes granted planning permission in the past decade still had not yet been built highlights a wider issue that needs resolving.

Equally, our vision for building high quality, genuinely affordable housing must be coupled with our commitment to tackle the climate emergency – which includes driving up environmental standards in residential homes. That ambition is dependent upon a framework that empowers local authorities to make planning decisions that promote positive environmental and public health outcomes. However, proceeding with the recent announcement risks degrading local authorities’ ability to promote high quality, sustainable housing through the planning system. 

So, if the government were interested in planning reforms that supported councils to meet the housing crisis and respond to the climate emergency, here are some things they could announce, and if not, policies the next Labour government should introduce instead:

A build out clause in granted permissions

The Government’s new Right to Regenerate proposals, which seem to amount to privatising public land by stealth, are deeply flawed. Many councils such as Southwark have ambitious council homes building programmes and are using land to build council homes. It is also silent on land banking from developers. Surely, any reforms to planning should enable planning authorities to refuse planning applications based on record of building out permissions?  

Enable plan making that is responsive to the local community and changing environment

It is a well-known fact that the current plan making process takes too long, and a running joke that by the time most plans are completed they are up for renewal again. This is particularly concerning for our response to the Climate Emergency and enabling councils to develop the right policies to encourage carbon saving technology at the right time. In recent years we have seen significant strides made in the renewable energy technology and communities have come together to develop co-operative energy organisations, all of which needs a national planning framework that actively supports it.

A report by The Committee on Climate Change in February 2019 calculated that if the current 27,000-50,000 homes built in timber frame in recent years increased to 270,000 annually, this would absorb and store three million tonnes of carbon. Now this will not be the answer to meet the entire housing need, but creating a national planning framework that enabled local authorities to strengthen plans to respond to modern methods of construction, should be a priority.

Local Authorities are ready to go further and in recent times many have already strengthen their requirement for environmentally friendly energy, and increasingly car-free developments are a fixture in more local plans. Here in Southwark, we have committed to a net zero development across our key masterplan area by 2030.

Development in the area will be car free and the promotion of walking and cycling as well as electric buses, taxis and commercial vehicles will help tackle air and noise pollution.  We are developing a District Heat Network linking new developments to the South East London Combined heat and Power plant, which will deliver both significant savings in C02 emissions and cheaper energy costs for residents. This will complement a range of low carbon energy options on new build homes across the masterplan area

A spatial planning system, which gives local authorities the ability to have a more formalised say in transport infrastructure

One of the key recommendations from Labour’s Planning Commission was the need for a spatial plan which provided a national framework but also placed a formal role on the local authority. The message of addressing regional inequality will be ignored if local communities get no say on whether their area has better transport infrastructure, and that applies for inner cities as well as northern towns and coastal areas. Whatever your view is on Heathrow’s third runway, it is absurd that the local authority had no formal input within the decision making, when local residents will have to live with the impact on air pollution and traffic in the area.

In short, if this government were serious about meeting the housing crisis and responding to the climate emergency, it would strengthen the role of local authorities within its most recent proposals. Instead it has continued with a decade-long vision to deregulate planning. The stakes are high, and we will need to be bold to build the social and genuinely affordable housing the country needs, as well as responding to the climate emergency. Reheated policies from the 80’s will not work and that is why Southwark Labour, like many Labour authorities, will be fighting these new proposals and campaigning tirelessly to elect a Labour government.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Johnson Situ</span></strong>
Johnson Situ

Johnson is the Labour Councillor for Peckham Ward (Southwark) and Cabinet Member for Climate Emergency, Planning and Transport