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Prioritise retrofits, but don't rule out new builds

10th March 2023

This week, a new report by the Climate Change Commission warned that the planning system is one of the primary obstacles to the UK hitting its net-zero targets. 

While the commission was talking primarily about the need to accelerate the delivery of green energy infrastructure, policymakers should be aware that a lack of clear planning guidance is also severely hindering efforts to decarbonise older offices, shops and other commercial buildings that do not meet today’s sustainability standards.  

This is a major challenge in London and across the UK, with projects stalling as developers and planners debate a fundamental issue, to retrofit or redevelop? 

A number of recent cases, including the ongoing inquiry into planning proposals for the Marks & Spencer store on Oxford Street, show there is no easy answer or one-size fits all approach. The commercial property sector is united behind a ‘retrofit first’ approach, which means adapting and updating an existing building for future use, limiting the amount of embodied carbon - but what happens when this approach isn’t feasible? 

It is becoming clear that architects, developers and planners alike need clearer guidance on how to determine the most carbon efficient way of futureproofing older building stock. That is why the London Property Alliance, which represents the capital’s leading developers and property owners, published a study late last year, Retrofit First not Retrofit Only, which examines in detail how we can sensitively adapt and upgrade London’s older buildings. 

Our report includes a number of case studies that illustrate the range of interventions that can be successful, including deep retrofit, sustainable redevelopment and a mix of the two, with some original facades and structure retained as part of essentially new buildings. 

However, the worry is that a lack of clear planning guidance and an increasingly politicised debate could lead local authorities to default to a ‘retrofit only’ position, and we end up with a de facto ban on redevelopment, leaving poorly performing and carbon-intensive buildings ‘stranded’. 

The situation is becoming increasingly urgent. It is estimated that in the City and West End three quarters of office buildings will need to be upgraded by 2030 to meet sustainability standards and avoid obsolescence. Moreover, if we want to attract leading businesses to London and other UK cities it is vital we provide best-in-class, sustainable office space that supports their ESG goals and helps attract talent. Indeed, according to Knight Frank, 60% of all space leased in London in 2022 was for new or high quality refurbished space with strong sustainability credentials, and there is a clear ‘green premium’ for the best space. 

So what can be done?

Government recently published its new draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which could have been an opportunity to provide clear guidance on how developers and architects should assess the relative merits of retrofit and redevelopment. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity missed, with the proposed amends largely focused on housing delivery and little new guidance included on how developers and local authorities alike should balance the NPPF’s three principles of sustainable development; economic, social and environment and assess the relative merits of retrofit and redevelopment. 

There is expected to be a more fundamental review of the NPPF next year, but any changes to planning guidance must be accompanied by more funding for local authority planning departments. London councils alone are facing a £600 million funding shortfall in the next financial year which makes it all but impossible to provide planning departments with the skills and resources they need to make judgments in increasingly complex cases. After years of local authority budget cuts, it is critical that Government looks at this as part of this week’s Budget. 

And underpinning this, there must be a uniform methodology for measuring whole life carbon. As it stands there is simply not enough data available for developers, architects and planners to form a clear view on what approach will maximise the environmental performance of a building over the long term. 

The industry awaits the outcome of the public inquiry into the plans for M&S on Oxford Street, but we cannot rely on ‘test cases’ such as this for clarity on how to move forward – we need clear and decisive action from policymakers.  

Charles Begley is chief executive of the London Property Alliance 

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