It’s Time To Change The Conversation

BEFS Director presents a personal reflection on the sector during COP26.

If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.

Now is the time to change the conversation. COP26 provides an opportunity for those conversations to be had more widely, and more loudly. Those within the existing built and historic environment need to shift the narrative.

The dichotomy is between the standard representation found frequently across policy, and most notably in the recent UK Government Budget and Spending Review “The UK’s old, inefficient building stock accounts for 17% of domestic emissions” [my emphasis] (p70)

And, on the other hand, the excellent, recently released English Historic Environment Forum Heritage Responds report:

This document is intended to show how heritage can become part of the solution to the risks and challenges of climate change. Importantly, this isn’t just about making statements and promises, but rather sharing what we are already doing, and galvanising further action. (p5)

One view pitches our existing environment as old, inefficient, cold, often ‘damp’ is thrown in as an additional trope; the other standpoint clearly demonstrates across a range of areas from research to retrofit what heritage can, and does, contribute towards net zero aims. However, all too often the two perspectives fail to meaningfully interact through a lack of common language and agreed measures.

In Scotland we have a ready-made mechanism for that connection. The Scottish National Performance Framework could be the interpreter. Any individual articulation of sector benefit isn’t currently getting the necessary cut-through. When considering recent Parliamentary Committee pre-budget letters we see that heritage (in its broadest form) falls between two stools. With Local Government, Housing and Planning, the potential of our existing traditionally built environment is not represented; and Constitution, External Affairs & Culture appear focused on creativity and arts as the cultural recovery agents to be supported and championed.

This is not to suggest that there are not a wide range of incredible projects, organisations and collaborations taking place across the sector; it is the collective voice that appears quietest at this moment. Over the course of lockdown the Covid Historic Environment Resilience Forum (CHERF) meetings highlighted how well the sector pulls together, working towards collaborative aims, reacting and pivoting to meet emergency need, and presenting a more united front against global-scale challenges. We must now translate this energy and cooperation into a national understanding of contribution across our social, economic, and climatic aims.

The Existing Built Environment Is a Carbon Rich Opportunity

The clamour for attention that COP26 seems to necessitate may not pay dividends in the longer-term. The scale of promises on a big stage are necessary and right for global changes, but I’m concerned with how these translate into national and local policies, and then how those policies are enforced and upheld. Encouraging coherent, consistent collaboration may reap more benefits in the longer-term; bringing further clarity and political understanding to how we, as a sector, support, enhance, and deliver those grander aims would be a strong outcome in itself.

Many of the changes necessary to meet net zero do involve the new. New infrastructure, new investment, new technology. Our existing built environment may well benefit over time from all of those; but even as things stand, it is an area where genuine and meaningful progress can be made quickly. Wins for individuals, wins for the economy, and wins for the environment. Rather than spending big on the latest silver-bullets in an attempt to fix past missteps, policy needs to support the decisions we are all being asked to make; those decisions closest, literally and metaphorically, to home.

More than a third of all buildings in the UK date from before 1919 and in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, around 20% of our housing stock is pre-1919 (over 50% is pre-1964). This helps to demonstrate the scale of potential for the climate, and social good, that could be effected by policies incentivising, supporting and ensuring well maintained and appropriately retrofitted homes (and public buildings). Action for our already existing building stock is essential to meeting net zero. We cannot build our way out of the climate crisis.

Wins for Individuals, the Economy, and the Environment

BEFS has frequently responded to economic, climate, and built environment focused consultations with responses that make clear our existing built environment delivers, and can be made to deliver more, through changes to aspects such as:

EPCs – EPCs do not currently assess traditionally constructed buildings accurately. Additionally, many smaller interventions are not considered as actions which can be listed to improve energy efficiency (chimney balloons, thick curtains). Work is ongoing around the benefits of smaller interventions in pre-1919 properties (draft proofing etc) but both maintenance, and smaller measures need to be understood as integral to improving both occupier comfort (and cost), as well as providing climate benefits.

Data – We need to understand what building stock we have, what materials are/should be used to maintain/repair that stock, when each building dates from, and what condition it is in currently.  This data would allow modelling to enable industry professionals and skills providers to invest for the future, enabling a workforce necessary to maintain, adapt and retrofit buildings across Scotland.

Maintenance –  Key recommendations previously made by the Committee on Climate Change included prioritising actions according to six principles for a resilient recovery. A programme of maintenance for our existing built environment, suitably adapting our built assets (across public and private ownership) supports all six of the principles. It supports skilled work and new jobs; it demonstrates an investment and mind-shift in using what we already have; it makes our places more resilient; all citizens could realise tangible benefits (whether in their home, workplace, public buildings, or as part of the employment and supply-chain); and the economic investment would be directly supporting reduced emissions (a wind and watertight home is far more energy efficient, even without retrofit adaptations).

Further rapid developments supporting the ongoing work and recommendations of the Scottish Parliamentary Working Group on Tenement Maintenance (which included suggestions for: mandatory Owners Associations, Building Reserve Funds and Building Surveys) would further enable skilled employment within the built heritage sector – and provide better maintained, warmer homes – benefiting people, fuel poverty targets, and climate targets.

Skills –  In BEFS response to Housing to 2040 Consultation it was noted that aspects such as ‘latency’ for the skilled workforce were mentioned, but there was a lack of expressed urgency as to how many of the constraints could be turned around within a 20 year timeframe. Current Construction Industry Training Board analysis acknowledges that 95% of contractors in the construction industry have no qualifications to work on traditional buildings, and only 2% of contractors have undertaken energy efficiency retrofit work on traditional buildings.

Fully considering the labour market in tandem with the education system will be essential to producing skilled workers within the relevant sectors. Many of the issues mentioned are noted within the Skills Investment Plan for the Historic Environment, and a framework with solutions exists within the document. Resource in this area could pay dividends across the retrofit, regenerative and maintenance agendas – supporting a green recovery, fuelling economic regeneration, and providing greater long-term benefits.

But we need to face into the significant shortage of people with traditional construction and heritage conservation skills if we are truly able to step up to climate change. There’s no point worrying about climate adaptation or carbon reduction if the assets we care about are in poor condition.(p40) Heritage Responds

More widely the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland recommended that the,

Scottish Government should require all public sector infrastructure asset owners to develop asset management strategies containing a presumption in favour of enhancing, re-purposing, or maintaining existing infrastructure over developing options for new infrastructure.

Supporting Economic Recovery and a Just Transition

Many of the changes needed, across multiple industries, to meet net-zero have the potential for negative economic effects in the short term, including changes to the job market. Deriding new-build construction can be heard as removing jobs, decimating industries, destroying supply-chains. To ensure a just transition, we need to focus on where new employment markets and growth can be found – ensuring those from transitioning industries can find long-term, sustainable work.

Our existing built environment can support economic recovery and transition in a number of ways, if championed and understood. It is:

  • central to a potentially expanding skilled workforce, maintaining and appropriately adapting our environment for the long term economic and environmental benefits to people and place.
  • a growing employment market – where repairing, reusing and adapting our built environment is central to economic recovery.
  • an important link in the materials supply chain – supporting a wide range of related industries.
  • a factor for making more homes available, as empty homes are brought back into use.
  • a key resource, essential to Scotland’s tourism offer – further energising local economies and securing future employment across a wide range of industries and employers.
  • a focal point of regenerative strategies (particularly in relation to High Street decline, and Town Centre Regeneration) enabling a sense of place – whilst providing skilled employment, places designed to promote wellbeing, and adaptive buildings suited to new futures.

Strong leadership and integrated policy remain essential to all aspects of delivery. Difficult choices will have to be made.  Currently when set against its own report-card Scotland isn’t achieving enough.

This applies as much to heritage as a sector as it does to governments. What does our report-card look like, and what will our next steps be? How can we learn to make the case – clearly and with vision for the future – demonstrating our unique place within that future? It’s a crowded landscape in which to advocate, but there is much to draw positive attention from across Government portfolios. Supporting a green recovery, and sustaining our places is at the heart of the Programme for Government. We just need to be talking the same language.

The Next National Strategy for Heritage

As the national strategy for heritage, Our Place in Time, was reviewed in 2019 at its midway point, our thoughts must turn to what a new strategy for the Historic Environment should look like in 2024.We are fortunate to have had the resource of Scotland’s Historic Environment Audit an output which needs to be supported in providing a continuity of data for the sector; but also scrutinised, to ensure the data we need for the future can be captured.

Now is the time to change the conversation and consider how our existing places deliver for Scotland. How we, as a sector, demonstrate our alignment to the National Performance Framework and speak the language of government, as well as commerce, will be key to finding ourselves integral in the conversation.

A national strategy is the space for a collaborative framework. A framework which, in demonstrating the breadth of skills, expertise and knowledge across the sector, also highlights societal, economic and climate benefits for people across Scotland.

The time has come to be louder – and prouder – of our existing built environment and the people and projects associated with our places. To champion the homes, workplaces, and commercial and social spaces of all kinds across Scotland. They have embodied carbon, high potential to help meet net zero aims, and are a resource providing skilled employment, now and for the future. Our existing places are part of a green recovery and support a just transition.

COP26 is a stage where all nations talk about their places, their aspirations, their climate actions. We can keep this conversation going for the longer-term. We can talk about how these sustainable, existing places are in all our communities; some are significant sites which need specialist care, and others are traditionally built demanding skilled interventions. All – regardless of age, or designation – are essential to changing the conversation. In the end, the realisation should be that it’s not about a heritage deficit, it’s about a carbon benefit; and how we express that on a national stage matters.


Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) is an umbrella body for organisations working in the built environment in Scotland. Drawing on extensive expertise in a membership-led forum, BEFS informs, debates and advocates on the strategic issues, opportunities and challenges facing Scotland’s historic and contemporary built environment.