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How a Labour government could rejuvenate the UK’s built environment

From Right to Left: Muyiwa Oki, President of RIBA, Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, President of CIOB, Justin Young, CEO of RICS, and Lindsey Richards, Vice President of RTPI

Chartered Institute of Building

7 min read Partner content

At this year’s Labour Party Conference, the Chartered Institute of Building was proud to host a fringe event with sector experts, outlining how a future administration could deliver improvements for the UK’s built environment sector.

Debates around housing and the built environment are becoming one of the main political battlegrounds ahead of the next General Election. All major parties are rushing to identify ways of addressing the key challenges facing the industry, including skills shortages, rising costs and regulatory reforms. 

With Labour increasingly branding itself as the ‘party of builders’, its annual conference in Liverpool provided the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), and other sector experts, with an opportunity to discuss how improvements in key policies and regulation could enable the sector to deliver a safer, higher-quality built environment for communities across the UK.

In partnering with other trade and professional bodies including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) led a fringe event hosted by Onward, demonstrating industry alignment on key issues affecting the built environment and the willingness to speak with ‘one voice’.

Sustainability and retrofitting

Following the Government’s recent move to row back net-zero targets, Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, President of CIOB, started the discussion with sustainability, emphasising that buildings not only use carbon to run but also take carbon to be built. She says that while “construction is often seen as the problem creator, we can be the problem solver.” Tackling the carbon used to produce a building is going to be a key element in driving forward sustainability in the built environment sector for whoever is in government after the next General Election. 

Rhys Jones repeated CIOB’s call for a mandatory regulation on the embodied carbon of buildings, arguing there should be an industry benchmark. With the UK home to the oldest housing stock in Europe, Rhys Jones also called for a national retrofit strategy to bring our housing stock into the modern day, saying: “People are living in low-quality homes and spending more and more to do so.”

Sustainability was also at the forefront of the President of RIBA, Muyiwa Oki’s opening remarks. Speaking about the Institute’s focus on the climate emergency, he emphasised why sustainability in the built environment must be a key priority in the UK as the second highest source of carbon emissions. Clear on the need for the housing sector to achieve net zero by 2050, Oki highlighted that progress is being made, including with the UK Net-Zero Carbon Building Standard, a collaborative venture to set the standard of embodied carbon and energy in the construction stages.

However, it is clear that more needs to be done. Pointing to the worrying fact that some houses currently being built will need to be retrofitted within the decade, Oki echoed the points made by Rhys Jones on retrofitting, calling for stronger standards. While welcoming the Labour Party’s commitment of £6 billion to tackle homes most in need of retrofitting, Oki backed the need for a National Retrofit Strategy: “A long-term and well-funded retrofit strategy will bring all the considerations raised by the panel – increased insulation, upskilling and sustainability - together to create a demand for better housing standards.” Oki says “It would also level the playing field in retrofitting and make sure the built environment sector moves from one of the carbon heaviest sectors towards net zero.”

Skills and diversity

Moves to improve sustainability within the sector must go hand in hand with a focus on skills, with the construction industry currently 225,000 people short. During the discussion, Rhys Jones made the case for enhancing education pathways in the sector, including the introduction of a Built Environment GCSE across the UK, following in the footsteps of Wales which already has students enrolled in the course. 

Justin Young, the CEO of RICS, also touched on labour shortages within the sector during his opening remarks, highlighting there is a shortfall of 4,000 people in surveyor roles alone. He argued there continues to be a big gap between a sector that is desperately in need of skills and an education curriculum that doesn’t produce the skills that are needed. Young says the gap is only growing. RICS is proudly taking proactive action; their school programme already reaches 19,000 pupils aged between 14 and 16 every year, however, Young says they need to reach more.

Young reiterated Rhys Jones’ comments on increasing built environment education at early stages, including the Built Environment GCSE, and also touched upon the role of apprenticeships. There were approximately 26,100 new apprenticeships started in the sector between August 2021 and July 2022: the first annual increase since 2016/2017. However, enrolment in built environment degrees has fallen by 40% in the last five years. Young says both need to grow to support the industry.

He argues that the problem is “not just about the number of people joining surveying and the wider sector, but also the diversity of people joining.” This is backed up by the figures, with only 18% of people in construction being women and just 6% of people in the sector having disabilities. Ultimately, Young suggested that moves to bolster diversity in the room where plans are made could ensure the sector properly represents the communities it designs and builds for.

Planning

The debate on skills also fed into another key aspect of the discussion, namely the role of the planning system in delivering the homes we need. Vice-President of RTPI, Lindsey Richards, is unabashed in her focus on planning as a significant issue. With the organisation recently publishing its Planifesto in the run-up to the next General Election, she argued that we must talk about resourcing both within the sector and in local planning authorities. 

Her position is that “years of planning reforms have impacted the sector significantly. Not only does the sector need the necessary skills to exist so the proposed changes can be implemented, but the sector also needs regulatory certainty and confidence to encourage outside investment.” Richards says we just need to get on with it. 

“The elephant in the room”, as RPTI calls it, is the resourcing of local authorities which is hugely impacting on the growth and delivery of the private sector as well. “There is a tangible connection between having the right skills in place and resourcing of local authorities. If local authorities are under-resourced, we cannot expect their staff to be able to take the time out to undertake further training and share best practices.” Richards says. Richards also argued that planning skills need to be more embedded into the mechanisms that make decisions. One way, she argues, is through increased support for our elected local representatives. The introduction of training courses on planning and built environment for elected parish councillors in some areas has been hugely successful in "building the total skillset around understanding planning".

Oliver Coppard, Mayor of South Yorkshire, proudly states his father was a town planner and is clear that "there has been a significant failure from this government on things like house building." He notes that the expert contributions from those on the panel are in agreement to what the solutions are. He is glad to see the focus on planning reform recently, which historically "has not got enough political airtime." However, Coppard agrees with Rhys Jones and Oki that there needs to be clearer plans and more thought put into improving the UK's existing housing stock. Coppard thinks that is where Mayors must come into play. Mayors have the opportunity to support increased upskilling in their regions, work with their local communities and pull more funding into their regions

It is clear that addressing sustainability, skills and planning within the built environment will have to be at the forefront of the next government’s agenda. For more information on the CIOB’s policy positions ahead of the next General Election, please click here

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