Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only address by Jules Pipe CBE, London’s Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration & Skills 

05 Apr 2023

Below you will find the key note speech made by Jules Pipe CBE, London’s Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration & Skills at our breakfast seminar exploring our Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only research on Tuesday 28 March.

You can read the full report here, the bitesize edition here, and a summary of the event here.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this seminar – I welcome the publication of this report on such an important and high-profile subject. It’s a report that provides valuable and accessible insight into a complex subject and case studies that bring to life the practical challenges, as well as opportunities, that decarbonising our building stock offers.

I’ve been asked to kick things off by outlining what the GLA is doing to drive sustainability in the built environment sector, particularly the requirements we are making through the London Plan and the guidance we have been issuing.

As I’m sure you are aware the Mayor has set an ambitious target of making London a net zero-carbon city by 2030 and London Plan policies and guidance are playing an important part in supporting this goal.

Over the past year and a half, we have adopted London Plan Guidance on eight policy areas and seven of these directly relate to environmental sustainability. These include guidance on Sustainable Transport, Walking and Cycling, Urban Greening, Air quality positive and Air quality neutral, as well as guidance focussing on minimising greenhouse gas emissions such as ‘Be Seen’ energy monitoring, Whole life-cycle carbon assessments, and Circular economy statements.

The building and construction sector is responsible for 39% of carbon emissions globally, with 28% arising from energy used to heat, cool and power buildings and 11% from materials and construction activity.

As standards for operational emissions have improved, due in large part to the decarbonisation of the electricity grid, embodied emissions are making up a greater proportion of the carbon footprint of buildings.  As such, the embodied emissions of the built environment are becoming proportionally more significant.

London has shown global leadership through the whole life-cycle carbon assessments policy and guidance which is a critical first step in accounting for the carbon emissions associated with construction and will encourage more sustainable solutions to building design.

The introduction of a requirement to produce whole life-cycle carbon assessments in the London Plan means that for the first time in the UK, developers are required to calculate embodied carbon emissions, so that we fully understand a development’s total carbon impact and reduce it through the planning process.

Other authorities outside London are following our approach and I hope the Government accepts the recommendation from last year’s House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee report to promote the adoption of this approach nationally.

It’s clear that we need to calculate and reduce embodied carbon emissions, but we shouldn’t forget about operational emissions. We need to continue to make progress on both as part of a whole life-cycle carbon approach and to achieve net zero.

Good progress has been made with reducing operational carbon emissions. Our 2021 Energy Monitoring Report shows that proposed developments are expected to see huge carbon reductions (of around 50% beyond building regulations) as a result of London Plan policies. But there is still more to do.

The performance gap is a major barrier to achieving net zero in reality. The energy efficiency of buildings can be anywhere from two to five times worse than predicted at design stages. This gap between design and reality needs to be urgently addressed nationally to get us closer to net zero in practice.

That’s why we introduced our ambitious Be Seen policy which requires all major new developments to report energy performance post-construction and it is also why we’re requiring post-construction whole life-cycle carbon assessments. This data will help inform future policies and targets and allow us to implement strategies that close the performance gap, as well improve how design calculations are done so that they become more accurate.

Another important aspect of the London Plan’s drive to sustainability is its focus on the Circular Economy. The London Plan Guidance on Circular Economy Statements puts circular economy principles at the heart of designing new buildings, requiring buildings that can be more easily dismantled and adapted over their lifetime. It treats previously used building materials as resources rather than waste, and puts in place a clear hierarchy, prioritising the retention of existing structures above demolition, where this is the more sustainable and appropriate approach.

Too often in the past demolition has been taken as a given when sites are redeveloped. The Mayor’s policies and guidance have been important in helping to kick-start a culture shift in planning and in the development industry to bring the retrofit and reuse of existing buildings up the agenda, ensuring that we are using land and materials in the most efficient and low-carbon ways possible.

Following consultation, The Whole Life-cycle carbon and Circular Economy guidance documents were strengthened to put more emphasis on retaining or re-using existing buildings and structures, where this is the more sustainable and appropriate approach, before considering demolition.

Applicants now need to show justification for the approach they have taken.

Applicants also need to provide a pre-demolition Circular Economy audit and account for Whole Life-cycle carbon emissions associated with any demolition to make sure that the impacts are better understood.

I want to be clear though. This is not about dogmatic decision-making blocking justifiable, comprehensive redevelopment. It’s about considering all reasonable options and making decisions based on evidence.

While it should be the starting point, retaining a building will not always be the right decision. In some cases, more sustainable outcomes can be achieved through careful dismantling and maximising the re-use of building materials and replacing it with a more energy efficient building with lower operational carbon emissions.

Decisions on demolition cannot be made in isolation, these policies must also be considered in the wider context and alongside the full suite of good growth objectives and policies that the London Plan and local plans set out to achieve. Heritage considerations will also play an important part in this process.

In conclusion, the most appropriate outcome will vary from site-to-site, but it is vitally important that Whole Life-cycle carbon and Circular Economy issues are properly considered right from the start to make sure that these factors inform the decisions planners and developers are making.

Working together, we need to find the best solution for each case.

Reproduced with permission from Jules Pipe CBE, London’s Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration & Skills.