Approach to futureproofing London’s buildings must be ‘retrofit first’, not ‘retrofit only’

16 Dec 2022

London Property Alliance Chief Executive Charles Begley features in the Evening Standard (14 December), where he discusses the Alliance’s Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only Report  and the need to reconsider our approach to decarbonising our building stock.

“If London is to achieve its 2030 net zero emissions goal, and continue to attract world-leading businesses, our built environment will need to be almost completely decarbonised.   

This a massive challenge, and is particularly acute in London’s core commercial districts of the City and West End where almost three quarters of existing office buildings will need to be upgraded by 2030 to meet sustainability standards and to create the high-quality workspace businesses need.   

Significant progress is being made, but across the capital projects to upgrade older office and retail buildings are stalling as developers and planners debate one fundamental issue that has become increasingly complex and highly politicised: to retrofit or redevelop?  

Retrofit, or deep refurbishment, is generally seen as the best approach to achieving net zero as it means re-using the existing building structure and possibly facades, thereby minimising additional embodied carbon in building materials and construction waste.  

In some cases, full redevelopment may be the only way to create a new building fit for modern purposes, and can mean more energy and carbon savings delivered over its life cycle.  

The current inquiries on the plans for Marks and Spencer’s store on Oxford Street and ITV’s headquarters on the South Bank underline that there is no easy answer.  

That is why the London Property Alliance, which represents the capital’s leading developers and property owners, has this week released a new report, Retrofit First not Retrofit Only, which examines in detail how we can sensitively adapt and upgrade London’s older building stock and create futureproof, zero carbon buildings, that also unlock socio-economic value for local communities. Our report features real world examples of retrofit-only schemes, which have worked perfectly, others have utilised a clever mix of redevelopment and retrofit to create the most sustainable outcome possible. 

We are fully in favour of a ‘retrofit first’ approach but our concern is that a lack of clear and consistent national planning guidance to address this issue will mean that local authorities begin to default to ‘retrofit only’.  

This would run counter to existing national planning policy, which includes a strong presumption in favour of economic, social, as well as, environmentally sustainable development, and also to the London Plan.   

The absence of detailed guidance also means there is a danger that planning decisions are made by political whim, and that we end up with a de facto ban on redevelopment. This would significantly increase the risk of London and town and city centres across the UK becoming blighted with ‘stranded’ commercial buildings, which do not meet today’s sustainability requirements and therefore cannot be legally occupied.  

Our detailed analysis, which we have shared with national and local government, shows that the delivery of net-zero buildings must be approached on a case-by-case basis, and with careful consideration of an individual building’s characteristics.   

Retrofit is most suitable for buildings with a robust structure and foundations, generous floor to ceiling heights and large floor plates. But where buildings do not fit these criteria there must be more support for the blending of the old and the new to maximise environmental and public benefits over the longer term.   

Put simply, we need national planning policy that supports retrofit ‘first’, but not retrofit ‘only’. This should be aligned with building regulations and a uniform approach to Whole Life Carbon, that is how we assess full carbon impact over a building’s life. 

But even with updated guidance in place, local authorities need more support in assessing complex cases and after a decade of cuts there must be more funding for planning departments develop their environmental expertise. With London councils facing a £700 million funding shortfall for the next financial year there is a risk that a lack of planning resource could be another barrier to reaching net zero.   

This is an urgent challenge for London and there is no more time to waste.  

Charles Begley, Chief Executive, London Property Alliance