The Housing Industry's Big Challenge vs. the UK's need to Rewild – Latest

The Housing Industry's Big Challenge vs. the UK's need to Rewild

The UK is concurrently facing a housing crisis and climate emergency. But does addressing one mean we have to ignore or neglect the other? Elliott Wood Senior Engineer Thomas Hesslenberg shares his thoughts:

If you’ve watched all six weeks of Sir David Attenborough’s latest BBC Wild Isles TV programme, it should come as no surprise how biodiverse the UK is, and how relied upon our islands are by a huge variety of migratory birds, sea life and more. The show has all the hallmarks of a great Attenborough classic, but this series really hit home as it was about home. The programme’s overarching message echoed by countless studies, shows how vital the natural environment is, not only to our own well-being and health, but also the survival of other species. The series had a clear message – the UK needs to rewild.

Unsurprisingly, what is also very evident from the show, is how much of our natural habitat is in decline (around 40%!). Throughout the series, Attenborough provides viewers with many facts about the rate at which our wildlife population has decreased across the board. In the sixth episode, a small group of (predominately) volunteers are given the opportunity to highlight positive steps they are making to save our natural habitat. This episode brought hope, and it is heartening to see their positive impact. However, the harsh truth is these acts of goodness are not enough to stem the tide versus the rate we are damaging the environment, mainly through the carbon emissions constantly being pumped out by all industries, including our very own construction industry. Through undertaking Whole Life Carbon calculations for buildings, we are faced with the actual numbers of how much carbon goes into the atmosphere for just one home. A typical 3-bedroom new built emits approx. 35-40 tonnes of CO2e for Stages A-C, while one tree will absorb approximately 1 TCO2e in its lifetime.

So, how does the need to rewild impact what we do as engineers and in the construction industry? While we are seeing a decline in the natural wildlife of the UK, we are also facing a housing crisis. In response, the construction industry is being encouraged to build more homes to address the lack of housing. Back in 2019, a study by Herriott-Watt University highlighted that the UK has a backlog of 3.91 million homes, requiring 380,000 to be built each year until 2031. In the Government’s last annual figures, between April 2021 and March 2022, just 204,530 homes were completed, a third short of what should be built in order to close the gap between supply and demand.

When looking at these numbers, there are two stark issues which come to the forefront:

1. Where are all these homes going to go?

2. If we rush to build new homes, are we only creating bigger issues for ourselves in the future?

This first issue presents the biggest challenge to the UK’s need to rewild; if we need to build ~4 million homes, what land will we build these on? What land are we not using already? The government announced at the end of 2022 that they are not going to hit their target of 300,000 houses a year, but this doesn’t solve the need for new housing. We still need good housing, but at what cost?

The second issue begs the question – if we rush to build new homes and these are of sub-par quality, then more time, money and materials will be needed to refurbish them. The quality of new housing in the UK is mixed; some of it is good-quality housing driven by sustainable goals, but much of it is poor quality, with a long snagging list inevitably picked up by new and future inhabitants. In a climate emergency where natural resources are precious, this is unacceptable.

The UK is facing a real issue with how it addresses the climate emergency. Between protecting our natural environment and fixing the housing crisis, one of the two is surely going to lose out. Or is there hope?

In the next couple of thought pieces, I will respond to and provide some clarity on the two issues raised. There is great progress happening within the housing sector, but what other fundamental changes need to happen in order for the UK to provide the necessary housing but not at the detriment of our natural environment.