How can conservation become a central part of the environmental movement?


by Joe O’Donnell, Director, The Victorian Society

I am writing this at the start of a new year, ordinarily a time for optimism. Given the collective experience in 2020 this is somewhat harder than usual. The long-term impacts of Brexit and Covid-19 have added even greater uncertainty around how society can tackle the climate emergency. But there is much to be hopeful about in terms of heritage and the climate emergency. There is a big opportunity to reposition the heritage sector as being part of the answer.

In December, the UK Government announced a new  target to reduce the UK’s emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. This came in advance of the UN COP26 climate talks, which the UK government is hosting in Glasgow this year, and is on top of the legally binding target to reach net zero by 2050. These targets mean that the heritage sector needs to get properly to grips with the climate emergency. There are two key strands to this. Firstly, the sector needs to get serious about reducing its own carbon emissions. Secondly, it must make the case that conservation and heritage are a key part of the carbon reduction solution.

On the first issue, there has been a tendency to perhaps think of heritage as the good guys and inherently more sustainable than other parts of the economy. To a large degree this may be true. However, serious thought still needs to be given to reducing the sector’s carbon emissions if the Government’s targets are to be met. There has been little public conversation around the biggest obvious source of carbon emissions in normal times- heritage tourism. Heritage is a big draw of the UK’s international tourism, 35% of international visitors sightsee famous monuments or buildings and 28% visit castles or historic houses. Yet it is perhaps hard to judge what drives visits and whether they would have come anyway. Perhaps we need to question the need for international travel to make income to support heritage attractions and other businesses. An article from AirportWatch last year suggested that the UK had a record trade deficit of £33.9 billion on international tourism in 2019.  This is more than £2 billion above the 2018 figure which was itself a record tourism trade deficit. Perhaps then the heritage sector can become less reliant on international visitors and should refocus on encouraging domestic tourism. Indeed, due to Covid this may become a necessity.

Nevertheless, even for domestic visitors many heritage sites have an unsustainable transport model. As someone who doesn’t drive there are many sites which are simply inaccessible to non motorists. Large organisations like the National Trust and English Heritage should work together with local authorities and the Government to ensure public transport is available for the final mile to reduce these emissions. I don’t underestimate how difficult getting that investment will be but the sector should be working harder to achieve this and to discourage car use - rather than providing free and cheap car parks. Car parking could instead be made more expensive to subsidise public transport to sites. This will require much uncomfortable change but it can happen. The heritage sector should be working with the Department for Transport on trials of technology to create buses on demand to sites for example. Such services are already being trialled by TfL. Such change is needed if the sector is serious about reaching diverse and younger audiences. According to the Centre for Transport and and Society, the general trend has been for each cohort of young people since the early 1990s to own and use cars less than the preceding cohort, and for the growth in car use with age to also be at a lower rate.

Yet heritage tourism, while a big driver of emissions, is not the only issue. All organisations within the sector should be seeking to improve their sustainability. From reducing single use plastics to ensuring the energy efficiency of offices and reducing travel emissions by encouraging more sustainable options. This will help the sector meet the legally binding national carbon reduction targets and position itself publicly as unequivocally sustainable. This will become increasingly important as we seek to attract new, younger audiences. DCMS and Historic England really need to step up here to ensure that the sector is on track to meet these targets. Planning at a central level should begin now. The small and fractured nature of the sector means that high level support and guidance will be needed. Perhaps this is being done internally but this work should not be done in a silo if all are to be signed up.

The second issue is getting the sector to better make the case that it can help reduce the wider economy’s climate emissions. Historic buildings are often maligned as energy inefficient - a line which is regularly used to help justify their loss. The sector must get better at communicating the benefits of reuse and repair of existing buildings in terms of carbon emissions. We need to fully understand the carbon embodied in existing buildings and the carbon emissions required to demolish them, dispose of the waste generated and create and transport new materials to build new buildings. It must be a rare case indeed that the huge amount of energy wasted in the demolition and rebuild process is outweighed by the carbon savings of running a newer more energy efficient building. Historic England has already done some research in this area but more research is needed to clearly understand the cost benefit impact. Such data should then become a vital part of the planning system to feed into decisions to understand their impact on us reaching our net zero target.

The sector should also try and mainstream the use of traditional methods with lower carbon emissions. For  example, using wood for windows rather than plastic or lime rather than concrete. Greater use of traditional materials could not only reduce the carbon emissions of the construction sector it would help address the traditional skills shortage in the heritage sector meaning that historic buildings are better cared for.

So how do we get to this future? First, a drastic change in Government policy is needed. While the Government has said lots of encouraging things about addressing climate breakdown, it is rarely followed through to policy. The planning white paper should have been an opportunity to set out how the construction sector would change to reach the binding net zero targets. Yet, this is barely considered with energy efficiency just getting a nod. At the same time, it seems to make demolish and rebuild  easier with an emphasis on permission in principle for brownfield sites. The sector should partner with environmental organisations to put more pressure on the Government to ensure that any future planning legislation creates a greener future. A planning system focused on reuse will also better care for our heritage.

The construction sector and the changes that should be made to encourage reuse and recycle were also noticeably absent from the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution. There also needs to be a major change in taxation policy to ensure that the tax system is not pushing developers in the wrong direction. Subject to certain detailed qualifications, in general there is currently 0% VAT charged on new build developments contrasted with 20% VAT charged on repair and maintenance. This is obviously massively at odds with a more sustainable repair and reuse approach and offers a perverse Government tax incentive for demolition. The Government has previously hidden behind the UK’s EU membership as a reason why it could not change. Even if accurate, this justification has now been removed as has been demonstrated by the repeal of the tampon tax. The sector has been pushing against a closed door on VAT for the best part of a decade. We should not give up in exhaustion but redouble our efforts. Reuse and repair is now part of the zeitgeist and the Government can no longer hide behind EU law to justify inaction.

If you’re wondering what you can do to move the sector forward a good first step is signing up to Heritage Declares - a non affiliated group of heritage professionals working to ensure that the sector steps up to tackle the climate emergency. It has ten actions which we can all commit to try and take forward in our daily work. Since taking over as the Director of the Victorian Society I have strived to put this into action. Making clear that saving existing buildings and reusing them for the future is the green and sustainable option will be an increasingly important weapon in our armoury to fight the loss of historic buildings. This is now a regular argument in cases especially where local authorities have declared a climate emergency. If this is not just to be an empty pledge from local authorities this needs to translate into their actions - and planning is one of the biggest levers at their  disposal.

While there is much work to do, I feel positive that the sector is well placed for a greener future. To take advantage of that I will reposition membership of the Victorian Society as an environmental act. Explaining that environmentalism and protecting heritage go hand in hand, could help us attract the new members from different audiences that are vital if we are to meet the financial challenges caused by Covid. So, if you care about heritage and the environment join us and help us make a difference.



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