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The Government claims to be green: its policies on building tax are anything but

7 min read

I find myself in an almost constant state of despair when I consider the way in which this nation is being run, especially when it comes to hideously blighted towns and cities, dereliction, vandalism, the destruction of fine old buildings which seem to have a habit of ‘going on fire’ as though they spontaneously combust, when it is certain they have been deliberately torched, and a great deal more.

Vested interests, compartmentalised thinking, stupidity, and a punitive tax system, combined with architectural incompetence, dim planning, insensitivity, and greed, are not ingredients likely to foster humane and agreeable environments. The impressions given to visitors to these islands are often those of a society in terminal decline, with wrecked buildings, litter, filth, and unsightliness all too prevalent and obvious in far too many localities.

Let us first consider the fiscal problem. British governments pay lip-service to lowering carbon imprints, etc., but in fact connive at increasing them. It is widely assumed that if the uses of electricity, gas, etc., employed to heat, cool, and light in a building are controlled in such a manner that the carbon emissions associated are lowered, that will suffice to demonstrate ‘green’ credentials, but what is ignored is that carbon costs involved in new construction, plus those incurred by demolishing buildings which could be rehabilitated, far exceed those when existing buildings are rescued and put to appropriate use after competent restoration. Dwellings in refurbished buildings, or in structures of various kinds that have been thoroughly and sensitively re-purposed, could make an enormous contribution to reducing the built environment’s massive carbon footprint.

But Governments have not shifted from the absurd position of zero-rating VAT on new buildings, yet charge 20% VAT on conserving, restoring, and refurbishing existing structures, a policy that is simply daft, as it works against a greener housing economy and ensures the spread of decay and urban dereliction, painfully obvious to any traveller in these islands, and creating a deplorable impression for visitors from abroad. For the last fifty years since VAT was first imposed, many organisations and individuals have argued for the abolition of VAT on repairs to historic buildings, but all pleas, all arguments, all campaigns to get successive governments to see sense have been stubbornly ignored. Thus there remains a massive and fundamental contradition in the Government’s declared policies towards carbon neutrality by 2050, and indeed shows up its supposedly ‘green’ credentials as mere posturings without any substance. It would be laughable if it were not such a desperately serious matter.

Harking back to the time when 300,000 new houses were being promised by the Conservative Government which came to power in 1951, and the Minister then responsible, Harold Macmillan, achieved this by 1953, the ludicrously named Department for supposed Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities now aims to repeat this each year in England. With one spark of imagination, and a glimmering of a grasp of basic realities, abolition of VAT on repairs and refurbishment of existing buildings of all kinds could give the Government a glorious opportunity to demonstrate a real commitment to sustainable development as well as go some way to solve the desperate shortage of housing.

Take, for example, the depressingly common sight of empty shops in English town centres, the obviously unused accommodation above such empty shops, and, let it be said, the millions of cubic metres of empty property above shops that are still in use: there lies a wonderful chance not only to house a great many people, but to bring back life to town centres, to conserve property not in use (and therefore liable to be vandalised and suffer inevitable decay), and ensure a modicum of credibility (certainly wholly absent now) when it comes to sustainable development. Careful, well-crafted adaptations of a great many such properties would result in the re-use of embodied carbon, decent housing for a huge number of persons, and comprise carbon-efficiency on a massive scale.

Of course, the skills needed are not taught in contemporary ‘schools of architecture’, where history, sensitivity, and respect for existing urban fabric are ignored in favour of grandiose schemes of massive destruction to provide the necessary tabula rasa for the realisation of outlandish grotesqueries involving massive carbon footprints to feed the inflated egos of monsters, so a programme of professional training (rather than indoctrination into ridiculous fundamentalist puritanical cults of what ever ‘ism’ is currently fashionable as part of the inglorious saga of Modernism) is essential to ensure the job is done properly rather than botched.

Abolition of VAT on repairs and refurbishment of existing buildings of all kinds could give the Government a glorious opportunity to demonstrate a real commitment to sustainable development

With the abolition of VAT on work done to existing buildings, rigorous teaching, and a considerable input of common sense (all singularly lacking up to now), the United Kingdom could make a real start in the provision of a sustainable and constructive housing policy through the careful adaptation, conservation, and re-use of existing buildings. It is a national disgrace that the value of embodied carbon is generally ignored in national planning and in legislation: there should be an immediate embrace of a presumption against demolition of old buildings, and a determination to re-use and adapt them for modern use, bearing in mind the necessity to do the work well, with sensitivity, care, and true professionalism.

Such changes to the levying of VAT would not only ensure the re-use of embodied carbon, but would encourage urban regeneration that is obviously and urgently needed in so many depressingly deprived places, while lessening the pressures to grab green spaces for new buildings, which inevitably means the loss for ever of those vital areas. The nation should wake up to the obvious and undeniable fact that the Government’s taxation policies favour the destruction of the Green Belt for new developments (often dreadful), the deterioration of urban centres, the decay and destruction of existing buildings that could be brought back into use, and an equation that overwhelmingly favours a very large carbon footprint emission.

I have recently been in Scandinavia, where I was lecturing in favour of the retention of old buildings, their conservation, and an end to the deliberate de-sensitisation of the public by bullies intent on destroying as much as possible in order to inflict their monstrous computer-generated fantasies on a world that is tired of them, and does not need them. I came across the work of a colleague in Norway, Professor Branko Mitrović, who has written a marvellous book entitled Architectural Principles in the Age of Fraud: why so many architects pretend to be philosophers and don’t care how buildings look, published by Gordon Goff of ORO Editions in 2022.

In this work, Mitrović pulls no punches in exposing the obfuscatory, absurd, odious posturings of so many architects today, who dismiss the past entirely and want to impose what ever fashionable ‘ism’ is in favour among a small coterie within its select enclosure, where minds are bent, and the possessors of those minds instructed to look with their ears, having been bullied into seeing only what they have been told to see. It is obvious to all of us who know anything about the dire state of architectural education that it is wholly unfitted for the massive task of adaptation and refurbishment of a great variety of old buildings, and those indoctrinated into its cult-like circle are more likely to damage old fabric rather than save and change it. Architects once created Order out of Chaos; now it is the other way round.

So with Government policies pretending to be ‘green’, yet through VAT achieving the opposite, and architectural ‘education’ clearly nothing of the sort, we are in a right old mess. Things should change direction, and quickly: the hypocrisy of current official policies should be recognised and made good without delay, for we are a laughing-stock the way things stand now.

Professor James Stevens Curl, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, was awarded The President’s Medal of The British Academy for ‘outstanding service to the cause of the humanities’ in recognition of his ‘contribution to the wider study of the History of Architecture in Britain and Ireland’ in 2017. He is the author of Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2028, 2029), which has received praise and abuse in almost equal dollops.

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