The Sustainability Narrative in Post-Brexit UK
A month and a half after the historic EU referendum, you still can’t get through too many conversations without discussion of the implications of Brexit. The discussion, both hopeful and cynical, ranges from everyday life to national policy to the built environment industry. Staying in the EU or not, the UK government still has responsibilities to address climate change, the environment and sustainable development. The question remains how seriously we take that responsibility, particularly without the oversight (or constraint) of the EU. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.
With all the changes in government, delays in triggering Article 50 and lack of strategic vision for a post-EU UK, certainty and commitment are two of the key things needed from the government to reassure the sustainable built environment sector. As expected, the construction industry is feeling a slowdown and anticipating “continued hiatus in private project starts” across sectors. Cities are particularly impacted by the funding and trade implications of Brexit.
The post-Brexit changes to government, particularly the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and embedding of those activities into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remind me of a similar shift in the City of Chicago a few years ago. At the time, the city had a Department of Environment (DOE), but in 2011 it was shut down in favour of a cross-department Chief Sustainability Officer. The stated intent was to integrate environment and sustainability issues into all departments, rather than in a silo. The result was mixed. Some departments, particularly those that received the most staff from the DOE diaspora did quite well—the Department of Transportation’s sustainable strategy became an exemplar program. But many other environmental initiatives that didn't easily fall into the existing remit of other departments, such as waste and recycling, became weaker or fell through the cracks.
The shuffling of DECC into BEIS will be similar. Those initiatives that overlap well with existing business narratives and Greg Clark’s priorities, such as energy efficiency initiatives and decarbonising heavy industry, may continue as usual or even get a boost. Other topics potentially seen as conflicting with business growth may not.
With DECC out and Andrea Leadsom in to lead Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, climate change and environmental policies may end up at the "bottom of the government's in tray." There are many specific questions about the UK’s role on climate change, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement, that remain unanswered.
Evidence from the previous conservative government doesn’t provide a clear signal of their priorities. Recent policies like the Modern Slavery Act and the release of the fifth carbon budget are positive signs of the UK’s commitment to global sustainability. However, the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon standard, the dismantling of the Green Deal and UK poor performance against EU air and water quality targets indicate lack of commitment locally.
Out of the EU, there is even more at risk. Access to the EU skilled architecture and construction labour force and sustainable materials such as glulam timber could be more difficult. Long-term funding for research and for major infrastructure projects could slow to a trickle. Policies and projects within the UK already in the pipeline could be halted.
Whatever the approach, clear declarations need to be made about the driving forces behind policy change. An elected government comes with a plan and a mandate, but where does the accountability come from for this government? What is their strategy for addressing sustainability and the built environment? With the systematic defunding of Whitehall and local governments, who will be left to do the tedious, but crucial work of filling in the gaps left by removing EU legislation?
No strategy is a bad strategy
Indecision on whether to keep or change policy can lead to more risk and cost, stifling forward movement, shifting resources and creating confusion. The built environment, inherently risk-averse, ends up planning in parallel for stricter policy when direction is unclear. Withdrawal of policy without suitable replacement leaves outdated standards and conflicting requirements.
The industry needs a firm commitment as to the direction the EU disentanglement will go. Good or bad, it will allow the industry to focus our attention. In the meantime, the government should commit to hold all existing legislation and EU policies until suitable replacements have been evidenced, as they’ve started by guaranteeing EU funding that extends beyond the UK’s exit.
There is the potential for the UK to be a global leader in climate change and sustainability. Within the industry, though, we can’t be naïve and wait for it all to fall into place or remain the same. We have the opportunity to retain the best of EU policies and to improve on the rest. It could be an opportunity to radically change the way the UK does business and create a more progressive, sustainable, resilient, smart, economically viable and equitable place.
Until there is more leadership, we will have to fight battles on multiple fronts. We can’t only envision our dream scenarios, we simultaneously need to identify and lobby for what needs protecting. Frustratingly, this could mean less money, time and attention for innovation, new research and collaboration.
We need to be nimble enough to frame sustainability and the built environment within the narrative that dismissed experts. We need to pick our heads up out of our projects and engage with politicians, civil servants and perhaps most importantly local communities. Without the EU to oversee, we all have a responsibility to keep the UK on the right track.