Do not just ‘Build, build, build’!

Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) protests the new laws on Permitted Development Rights (PDR) as being detrimental to meeting underlying climate targets and wants the government to immediately stop the changes from coming into force on 31 August 2020 without enough scrutiny and before amendment of the current Building Regulations and Planning Laws. Sahar Nava of ACAN explains.

A construction site in Longbridge
A construction site in Longbridge

Image: Elliott Brown (CC BY 2.0)

Sahar Nava

From September 2020 new Permitted development Rights (PDR) laws will mean planning applications will not be required in many instances where full approval currently regulates quality. Amongst the changes, the extended rights will allow the demolition of a vacant office, light industrial or residential buildings to redevelop the site for a residential building. Owners of many residential blocks and homes will also be able to add up to two storeys through a fast track approval process. 

The proposed changes to PDR were published as a consultation on 29 October 2018, results of which were published in May 2019 and considered that such rights “would require extensive prior approval considerations.” Despite the responses to the consultation and the government’s response, these rights are being implemented and coming into force at the end of August 2020.

New PDR changes have been rightly and extensively critiqued by researchers and organisations such as TCPA, LGA, RIBA and UCL academics amongst the many others. These well-addressed criticisms mainly challenge the design, democratic, economic, social and well-being aspects of PDR and its new proposed changes. ACAN fully acknowledges and supports these organisations’ calls and is criticising the environmental impacts of new PDR.

The construction industry is currently responsible for more than 40 per cent of carbon emissions. The speed and nature of construction under the current Building Regulations prior to Covid-19 would not have allowed adhering to the UK 2050 targets to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. The proposed new laws would take us further from meeting those targets.

The recent research conducted by Royal Town Planning Institute points out that although there has been a reduction in operational carbon emissions during the Covid-19 lockdown, “energy consumption could quickly rebound to pre-crisis levels as lockdown measures are lifted”. The report recommended measures and higher standards for new homes alongside other interventions which will need to be integrated into local and strategic plans. The government’s proposal for a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is promised to ensure mitigating and adapting to climate change and maximising environmental benefits. It is also hoped that the new Approved Documents Part L and Part F will set higher standards of energy efficiency and air quality. As an example there is currently no requirement to assess, report and reduce the embodied carbon of new buildings in this country. Over a 30-year period, embodied emissions account for more than 50 per cent of the total carbon emitted for some building types

To meet the UK’s 2050 net zero GHG emission commitment, about an average 40 per cent of the reduction in emissions should be from embodied carbon emissions. This is only achievable by assessment of embodied carbon and means for its reduction should be included in the Building Regulations. It is vital that the PDR changes should not be adopted before the amendment of local and strategic plans, NPPF, and related Acts, policies and regulations.

Currently there is a 20 per cent VAT applied to most forms of refurbishment and renovation projects while this amount is between 0-5 per cent for the new build projects. Changes to PDR with the current VAT relief would only further discourage retrofitting and favour new buildings with higher embodied carbon emissions and production of more waste. The waste related to construction, demolition and excavation accounts for approximately 60% of total UK waste. New laws on demolition and rebuild are not aligned with the Circular Strategy Approach, cited in the ‘Design for Circular Economy Primer’.

Demolition of structures and buildings that are adaptable, and the knock-on effect from transport and building materials and the associated increase of unregulated energy consumption, will lead to a considerable increase of both embodied and operational carbon emissions and is considered incompatible with the UK’s 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emission commitment and the recommended mid-term targets.

In order to prioritise climate targets ACAN is calling on the government to:

  • Immediately stop the extension of PDR in its current form from coming into force 31 August 2020;

  • Prioritise amendment of NPPF and Building Regulations to include robust climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies (i.e. Introduction of Embodied Carbon limits into legislation);

  • Update the ‘Environment Act 1995’ to align to achieving net zero carbon by 2050 before the enforcement of any new laws;

  • Vastly restrict PDR to only include near zero carbon or better retrofitting projects and to exempt demolition and new build;

  • To allow for demolition only if enough scrutiny has been conducted that retrofitting is not viable by including a Whole Life Cycle Analysis and incorporating the principles of Circular Economy to: design for adaptability, longevity, disassembly, reuse and recycling;

  • Remove the VAT relief from new build projects and allow VAT relief only on retrofit projects to create financial incentive and funding streams that support and promote retrofitting and adhere to a circular economy and a sustainable model of growth; and

  • Provide all stakeholders with retrofitting design guidance and toolkits which should be applied for via the Prior Approval Notice process and would adhere to the climate change commitments.

ACAN has written an open letter to Robert Jenrick spelling out the severe environmental impacts of government’s proposals to extend PDR. ACAN also invites all industry professionals and members of the public to sign their open letter and to take part in the campaign to stop the new changes from coming into force at the end of August 2020.

You can view the ACAN campaign against the proposed PDR changes on the ACAN website.