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What does the Levelling Up White Paper mean for the built environment and net zero?

LEVELLING UP Featuredimage | BRE Group

Tuesday 2 February 2022 saw the publication of the UK Government’s long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, setting out its plans to “spread opportunity and prosperity to all parts” of the UK.

The White Paper contains commendable intentions for the built environment, particularly those to improve wellbeing and standards of living through a drive to improve the quality of the UK’s housing. Our report, The Cost of Poor Housing in England, finds that poor housing costs the NHS some £1.4bn per year. When wider societal costs are included, this rises to some £18.5bn every year.

Unless a targeted effort is undertaken to improve the poorest housing stock these social and cost burdens will continue, and we are pleased to see recognition by Government of the clear links between the economy, health, and the built environment.

At the heart of the levelling up agenda should be a holistic approach to local governance; one which brings together the Government’s priorities for housing, health, connectivity, and net zero into a cohesive vision which delivers positive outcomes for people and communities.

In England, plans to explore proposals for a Decent Homes Standard for the private rented sector are welcome. The English Housing Survey, which has been carried out by BRE on behalf of the UK Government for nearly 50 years, found that in 2019, the private rented sector had the highest proportion of non-decent homes of any tenure type – some 1.1 million, or 23% of the stock. This must be addressed to ensure everyone can live in a safe, warm, comfortable home.

The primary criticism of the Levelling Up White Paper so far has been the lack of new concrete policies and spending commitments. However, at least regarding building decarbonisation, the White Paper contained one important, wholly new commitment. The private rented sector has long had the highest proportion of cold, energy inefficient, high carbon homes. We know from our research into fuel poverty that this is a major issue and one that drastically needs addressing as the cost of energy continues to rise and the UK is faced with a cost of living crisis.

Local authorities have powers to require improvements to these homes, but tracking down landlords, particularly rogue landlords, can be difficult. The plans set out to consult on a National Landlords Register could substantially solve this problem by enforcing both higher standards of quality and sustainability, and we therefore hope to see it taken forward following consultation in the Spring.

The White Paper also sets out the Government’s plans to proactively identify and engage with 20 towns and city centres to undertake ambitious, London King’s Cross style regeneration projects. BREEAM, our world-leading environmental assessment method, was used at the heart of the King’s Cross project to make sure that it delivered a more sustainable, healthier environment for residents, and we were delighted to award seven of the completed buildings an ‘Outstanding’ rating.

Homes England will be refocused to partner with local leaders to deliver these regeneration schemes, which is a positive step towards socially responsible finance that sits in line with the body’s remit to drive positive housing market change. Efforts to deliver these schemes must be underpinned by support for SMEs to navigate the current system to deliver both new housing and retrofit, and a commitment to increased quality in the widest sense.

Much of the White Paper is concerned with the business of government – how government can be arranged, and decisions taken, to ensure fairer outcomes across all parts of the UK. This does include some directions on net zero buildings. For example, the National Audit Office last year identified that multiple low carbon funding streams were difficult for local authorities to manage. The White Paper announces a review aiming to streamline the unnecessary proliferation of funding pots.

Similarly, there are new commitments on improving data for local government. One of the key challenges for local authorities in delivering low carbon buildings is access to data on the building stock in their area. BRE provides extensive support to councils in this area, but there is clearly scope for more central government co-ordinated work by central Government to improve the availability and quality of data.

This will, hopefully, begin to be addressed by the Government’s commitment to set up a new independent body devoted to data, transparency, and robust evidence. Important though these changes are, they are process improvements for local government, and we need to see more detail on the clear support and direction that local authorities will be given to deliver the measures set out in the White Paper. Decarbonising buildings is the most significant challenge to reaching net zero that local and regional administrations will face over the next thirty years. Unfortunately, the strategic questions about how they will do this remain unanswered in the White Paper.

The consultation focuses extensively on strengthening and scaling up local, city-level and regional devolution and identifies three tiers of devolved administration (see Table 2.3 below).

Levelling up white paper

However, it states only that these tiers will have a strategic role in delivering against net zero targets. The document goes nowhere towards identifying the specific roles and responsibilities that different tiers of devolved government will have to deliver net zero. A decentralised, low carbon energy system is dependent on robust local and regional planning and delivery. To achieve this, the Government must define a clear set of devolved responsibilities and, unfortunately, the White Paper misses an opportunity to do this.

Similarly, the White Paper contains a frustrating lack of detail on the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), which is the post-Brexit replacement for the European Regional Development Funding (ERDF) and will be the UK’s principal funding mechanism to deliver regional economic development. Over the past decade, European regional funding has been key to delivering low carbon buildings and infrastructure. For example, nearly all support for low carbon buildings in the SME sector has come from ERDF. But we know very little about what the Shared Prosperity Fund will look like; certainly not if and how it will promote low carbon buildings as an engine of regional development.

Nothing is more important for low carbon buildings than planning. Last year’s Planning White Paper missed a chance to prepare for a planning system-oriented around the net zero targets. This White Paper does nothing to correct that.

There is good news for low carbon buildings in some of the detail of the White Paper’s 400 pages. Retrofit training is already being supported as part of the new programme of skills bootcamps – building the workforce we need to decarbonise our homes.

While the White Paper contains promising ambitions, it falls short of concrete plans or commitments. The devil will ultimately be in the detail, and without this detail the White Paper falls short of seizing the opportunity, and need, to put net zero and zero carbon buildings at the centre of an ambitious programme to develop the regions of the UK.

To find out more about our expertise in housing research, please get in touch with our data and insights team.