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The right strategy for sustainability?

John Malins - associate at David Arnold Cooper Solicitors looks at the government's proposals published in the Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction

Buildings account for 47 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK – so I'm not surprised that the government is keen for the construction industry to do its bit to reduce global warming by constructing more energy efficient buildings.

But what does surprise me is the way in which the government sees this being achieved.

On July 30, 2007 the government published its proposals in the Draft Strategy for Sustainable Construction.

At the launch Stephen Timms, the new construction minister, set out the government's stance by saying that the strategy is not about introducing new legislation and instead is about making existing regulation work better.

After all, said Mr Timms, it was people in the construction industry who helped build the strategy and so it’s clear that the required changes in working practices are wanted by the government and industry alike.

So far so good, but what are the key proposals?

The first is that the government should use its very considerable procurement power more effectively by specifying energy efficient buildings for itself. I have no problem with this very sensible proposal.

My concerns are about the two further proposals. One is that there should be a greater recognition of design quality as integral to all aspects of sustainable construction. The other is the increased use of sustainable materials.

What concerns me is not, of course, the proposals themselves but their likely (or perhaps more realistically unlikely) implementation in practice.

You will recall the recent criticisms of Northern Rock's business model. I would venture to suggest that if the implementation of these proposals constituted a good business model, then a significant proportion of recently constructed buildings would already be more energy efficient. This, however, is apparently not the case.

My own view is that the required changes in working practices will only be achieved by the right mix of financial incentives and statutory requirements.

The real question is where the balance should be struck. Should the balance be in favour of incentivising the construction industry or ensuring the construction of more energy efficient buildings by legislation?

Did Mr Timms get it right when he said that the onus is on the construction industry to rise (voluntarily) to the challenge of reducing emissions?

You can have your say. The draft strategy can be found at http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file40641.pdf and comments are requested by November 30.