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Paul Groves looks at what successive Prime Ministers mean for climate change

Mythical Greek warrior Achilles had his heel, Samson has his luscious flowing locks, Superman had his Kryptonite and it appears Conservative Prime Ministers have the environment as a significant source of vulnerability.

Ever since former PM David Cameron boasted about becoming the greenest premier the nation had even seen – a bold pledge that evaporated fairly quickly – the environment has proved more than a tricky issue for each of his successors.

Admittedly Liz Truss didn’t last long enough as PM to fully appreciate her attitude towards all things climate change and net zero, although her ill-fated growth agenda did cause alarm bells with many describing it as an “attack on nature”.

Before her brief residence at No.10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson’s record on the environment was somewhat sketchy to say the least. He talked about green revolutions and yet we saw very little hard evidence of true progress.

Now Rishi Sunak has started to stumble too as regards the green agenda. When he’s not opting for executive air travel for short-haul journeys, he’s seemingly giving the green light for the Treasury to back-track on the Government’s 2019 pledge to help the global fight against climate change.

Why do Conservative PMs find green issues such an ideological clash with blue values?

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification magazine

A failure to materialise

Many of the “green” initiatives that have been proposed and trumpeted over the last five years appear to have either stalled spectacularly or simply failed to materialise. Now the government’s own environmental watchdog, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), has issued a damning update on the UK’s chances of achieving net zero targets.

From the flagship Future Homes Standard to more basic programmes to encourage the push towards net zero, the CCC has pulled few punches in this latest report. And yet such dire warnings and stinging rebukes do not seem to have much of a political impact.

Compare the reaction – or non-reaction – from government to the CCC’s series of reports in recent years with the response of the wider construction industry and the chasm that seems to have existed for a while is growing larger.

From industry bodies and professional organisations to individual manufacturers and key stakeholders, construction’s grasp on the issues has always appeared to be far greater than the Government’s. It is not only the level of understanding, but the plan of action that has not only been promised but also implemented and the goals achieved that shows why construction’s push to net zero is setting a high benchmark.

A worrying retreat

BESA chief executive officer David Frise described the CCC’s latest update as a “chastening report”, but he also regards it as useful for highlighting those areas where government needs to focus its efforts and where industry can help.

“None of the findings were surprising but the scale of the retreat from net zero targets is worrying,” he continued.

“A big flaw is the failure to put net zero at the heart of the planning process and ensure all the mechanisms are in place to make a comprehensive national building retrofit programme happen at pace.

“Making buildings more energy efficient and climate change resilient can be done quickly, relatively cheaply and would also help to address the cost-of-living crisis.”

Avoiding big decisions

The CCC quoted “thousands of measures” in the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy that could make a difference, but that policymakers were avoiding the “big, impactful decisions and action” that could get the sector closer to net zero by 2050.

It was particularly critical of the slow pace of heat decarbonisation with just 72,000 new heat pumps installed last year against a target of 130,000, which the CCC said should rise to 145,000 this year.

“We know what needs to be done so now it is all about delivery and the truth is that no government is going to deliver net zero,” added Mr Frise. “Delivery will come down to individual industries and economic sectors with built environment engineering playing a pivotal role.

“Government needs to pull policy levers and raise public funds but ultimately our industry, like others, will have to step up and seize the opportunities – and the biggest is retrofitting and refurbishing thousands of buildings many of which are in dire need of an upgrade.”

Neglecting its duty

Meanwhile RIBA President Simon Allford said the report presents clear and concerning evidence that the Government is neglecting its duty to pursue policies that will deliver a net zero future.

“Buildings remain the UK’s second highest emitting sector,” he continued. “This report highlights a serious lack of progress in introducing energy efficiency measures, particularly for the owner-occupied and private-rented sectors, which account for the vast majority of our homes.

“This inertia must end now. Millions of homes up and down the country are leaking energy and money. Homeowners must be incentivised to make the upgrades needed for greener homes, and this will require new funding models.

“The Government must urgently publish a comprehensive National Retrofit Strategy.”

There are many questions as regards the environment and official policy that remain unanswered. For now, here are two that deserve a simple explanation.

Why does the Government find it so hard to listen? And why do Conservative Prime Ministers appear to find the green issue such an ideological clash with their traditional blue values?

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine