The UK economy is at a watershed moment for sustainability

An environmental watershed is looming for architecture, construction and built environment industry across the UK, as a raft of recent and impending regulations directly impact on ongoing and future implementation on development.

James MacGregor and David Kershaw, environmental economist and principal consultant at Ramboll, discuss where the UK is at with its sustainable goals.

Developers are ably demonstrating their capability at working with, shaping and improving sustainability regulations.

We operate at a time when major infrastructure expansion in the UK is ongoing, placing the implementation of policies that seek to safeguard our natural capital in the hands of developers: HS2, Crossrail, various London tube upgrades, smart motorways, and more new train lines across the northern powerhouse are promised.

Indeed, there is strong evidence that the business case for sustainable investments is compelling, and we are seeing innovation and investment that delivers a triple win for the company, the local economy, and the environment.

However, mainstreaming remains a distant objective. This owes to a range of piecemeal regulations on sustainability issues, the weak evolution of regulatory enforcement mechanisms owing to both emerging business cases and select successful voluntary mechanisms, and lack of a framework for evaluating trade-offs among key sustainability criteria.

Trade-offs

Innovating sustainable solutions has a trade-off cost. The questions for developers become; do we even understand the cost, and is the cost worth paying? Should a developer prioritise jobs or biodiversity?

We should respond with joined-up thinking considering the trade-offs between commercial opportunity, socio-economic impacts, and sustainable practice.

We believe the approach to regulation must be unified to give clarity to the currently-disparate regulatory landscape for all stakeholders, sharpen and focus decision-making by the private sector, and, with the right public investments in data availability, enable swift learning-by-doing within the sector.

This approach is enshrined in the IPPR’s proposed ‘Sustainable Economy Act’, which builds on the success of the UK’s Climate Change Act, which demonstrated the power of regulation to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

The proposed Act is a natural evolution in policy to encompass and integrate key targets that underpin the health of the UK environment and ultimately the human population and economy.

Attendant innovations provide further support for this mainstreaming of sustainability, including advancements in the digitisation of data and tracking technologies coupled with fit-for-purpose requests for environmental economics on projects of all sizes to enable better decision-making.

Realign dispersed policies

Under the proposed Sustainable Economy Act, the UK’s environmental economics leaders will be called upon to realign existing dispersed policies into a cohesive whole that can be seamlessly integrated on new developments, enabling transparent trade-offs, encouraging inter-disciplinary discussions and reporting on meaningful targets.

The UK’s existing implementation, policy, and regulatory frameworks are recognised as world-leading, due to their focus on net-zero innovations, science- and indicator-led regulation (such as biodiversity net gain), and integrated implementation strategies (such as the HM Treasury Green Book approach to social cost-benefit analysis) that guide and underpin major investments.

Upcoming UK regulation (including a new Environment Bill and implementation of DEFRA’s 25 Year Plan) is innovative, stretching and cutting-edge.

These changes bring with them several decision-making challenges: confusion from overlapping regulations; trade-offs among sustainability impacts and commercial concerns; and learning from doing.

Regulatory confusion is nothing new, but a single overarching framework as proposed by IPPR will be keenly welcomed by the industry.

Currently, government and regulation have considerable reach at local planning authorities and district control offices.

There is much to be learned from voluntary accreditation schemes such as Well and BREEAM, which integrate key elements for sustainable development, and enable designers to excel at their job – innovating and inspiring. Furthermore, public scrutiny is increasing, and decisions must be joined-up and able to withstand scrutiny.

Trade-offs are central to meaningful and informed decision-making, and a holistic approach to policy is required to ensure the UK continues to prosper on all fronts – commercial, economic, social and environmental – and not focusing on one to the detriment of the others.

Focusing on a ‘sustainable economy’ will enable these trade-offs to be recognised and improved.

Furthermore, the alignment of business or commercial incentives with wider sustainability goals is arguably not effective or efficient if approached gradually, as it is currently. The challenge of implementing sustainable policies comes from the difficult and necessary trade-offs between economic, social and environmental outcomes.

Integrating sustainability

Learning from experience is a key element to developing a system that swiftly integrates sustainability into all projects.

We believe a mix of digitalisation of experience and access to monitoring and evaluation materials is key.

There has been a welcome drive towards digitising best practice from large scale infrastructure projects. A recent example of joined-up thinking-in-action is the TFL Northern Line route option assessment.

This concept level assessment compared goals such as ‘improving air quality’ and ‘supporting local regeneration’ by quantifying design appraisal into metrics, and summary-dashboarding a high-level, but rigorously informed overview.

This meant that proposed routes could be contrasted and compared against trade-off objectives. The industry is slowly moving towards digital tools generally, and keen engineers will scale the tools to function on projects of more conventional size and realise the same benefits.

We believe that unified regulatory, implementation and reporting frameworks will support the mainstreaming of sustainability onto proposed and ongoing developments across the UK.

This can support and enable the UK to gain the widest economic benefits from its infrastructure developments, including targeting job creation in poorer communities and long-term planning to protect richer biodiversity assets.

Legislation should align with the sensible and staged enforcement of option-appraisal.

We suggest that a government-hosted database of experience is required to drive the integration of sustainable development into projects and downscale this experience to small- and medium-sized projects which comprise most developments in the UK.

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