Photo by Mike Stezycki on Unsplash

What if architects and green builders were to write their own political manifestos – their own wish lists for “if I ruled the country”? What would you put in yours?

Members of RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the UK Green Building Council have done just that. And, looking beyond the politics, they provide an insight into where building designers’ heads are right now regarding sustainability.

We’re in the middle of an election in the UK, one of the most turbulent the country has seen in a long time. It’s even been called the Climate Change Election.

The main parties, especially to the centre and left, have been making heavy promises on the lines of a green new deal. The Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats each have variants on this, pledging to green the economy and infrastructure with hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Tories, with a poor record on the environment and energy, are the current front runners to win the election, however. Their promise to “get Brexit done”, no matter what type of Brexit it is, resonates with many voters who are tired of Parliamentary delays.

But trust in politicians is at an all time low. It’s in this context that wish lists sent by trade bodies are arriving at a more than preoccupied Conservative Central Office.

RIBA’s manifesto

RIBA’s manifesto asks for policies to support architects to use their expertise to make sure the built environment is safer and more sustainable. People, Places and the Planet: RIBA’s Manifesto for Change calls for fundamental changes in the design, build and procurement of buildings.

RIBA’s president, Alan Jones, said when launching the manifesto this week: “We live in uncertain times but the changes needed to deliver a better country cannot wait. Action is needed on the climate emergency, the housing crisis and building safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.” He called upon the next government to tackle these huge challenges.

The document complains about the lack of effective and integrated planning, which leads to too many poor quality and unpopular developments winning approval against the interests of local communities.

Its solution is for local councils to be given more resources by government, and official backing so that if they reject a poorly designed scheme, they won’t see their decisions overturned by national politicians.

RIBA has published its own pathway to 2030 Climate Challenge goals to obtain greener and more sustainable new build construction, use and building reuse.

By 2030 this would see all new and refurbished buildings slash operational energy demand by at least 75 per cent, reduce embodied carbon by at least 50-70 per cent, cut potable water use by at least 40 per cent, achieve core health and wellbeing targets, and use measurements to drive quality improvements in the real-world performance of buildings.

England has fallen behind other countries on regulating for fire safety to ensure that buildings are safe by design, so RIBA wants combustible materials banned on high-rise buildings, and all new multiple occupancy residential buildings over 11 metres tall to have at least two stairways, offering alternative means of escape for residents and access for firefighters. Improved fire alarms and mandatory sprinklers are also on their list.

No manifesto is possible without mentioning Brexit and the architects’ is no exception. They want the immigration system not to prevent skilled people entering the country to study, and to join the profession as well as to keep professional links with European nations after the UK leaves.

UKGBC’s manifesto

The UKGBC has published its own demands, which are more specific than RIBA’s.

It wants so see a national infrastructure program to improve the energy efficiency of all existing homes and all non-domestic buildings, although it is content to wait 15 years for this to be completed.

Its wish list includes a demand that all buildings and infrastructure are made climate resilient and maximise environmental net gains. They want nature-based solutions to be deployed wherever possible.

Nature based solutions borrow ideas that the natural world has perfected over millions of years as ways of handling dry and wet periods, heat, cold and wind. Like swales, trees and soil care, they help nature to protect us and itself.

UKGBC also want to see companies declare their climate related risks, and planning law strengthened to prioritise climate adaptation and mitigation.

Government should practise what it preaches and only be occupying net carbon buildings by 2030, and it should use procurement to drive positive social and environmental outcomes, and the circular economy, and start accounting for these benefits.

If the UK does finally leave the European Union, UKGBC wants environmental protections and climate policies to be at least a strong as they are today. Air quality in British cities is worse now than it ever has been.

Tree planting

Neither manifesto specifically mention tree planting, the easiest way to get to net zero carbon.

The Labour Party, earlier this year, issued a policy called Land for the Many and has talked of planting trees on all NHS-owned land. It has not yet issued its manifesto on this topic.

The Conservative Party has said it will plant 30 million trees a year, and the Lib Dems have doubled that. This is feasible, but will need careful planning to get the right trees in the right places. In the last financial year, the Tories only planted less than 14 million, so their record isn’t great.

What would your policy demands be?

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