UK Green Path leads to Deindustrialization and Worsening Housing Shortage


The First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Lord President of the Council, Peter Mandelson, together with Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, have published The UK Low Carbon Industrial Strategy. They are claiming it promises an "economic revolution” but is in fact an environmentalist retreat from industrial production It is a disastrous strategy that will result in further de-industrialisation, supposedly with the aim of addressing a rather vague threat of climate change.

Mandelson and Miliband insist The UK Low Carbon Industrial Strategy “can ensure that our economy emerges from the global downturn at the forefront of the technological and social shift that will define the next century.” Yet this is typical establishment "greenwash", which many institutional and corporate leaders of the construction industry will sadly rush to endorse. It will shift us towards the laborious construction of new eco-homes, and the laborious refurbishment of the stock of mostly draughty, poorly insulated, and badly serviced housing. All this is aimed to achieve, at least on paper, a contribution to a national carbon reduction target by 2020.

Government thinks that it will be building 240,000 "zero carbon" homes every year by 2106. In fact at least 500,000 homes are needed every year to meet household growth and replace the oldest of the stock at a rate of 1% a year. Yet in reality this year new house building is down to 100,000 a year, and there is no reason why that level of production will increase even when, as is starting to happen, house price inflation returns. Instead of promoting mass production, most house builders are quite likely to follow The UK Low Carbon Industrial Strategy to become luxury eco-home builders. They will be content to build around 100,000 "green" homes a year to get through the planning system. They will build homes that show their environmental credentials by the thickness of walls and roofs – full of sheep’s wool or hemp, packed with straw bales, or made from low-fired clay blocks.

This, of course, is the approach to new house building promoted by Prince Charles and the other would be green gentry. He advocates “the use of local materials to create local identity which, when combined with cutting-edge developments in building technology, can enhance a sense of place and real community.” Just as Mandelson and Miliband claim theirs is an industrial strategy, Charles promotes green building technology.

Charles talks of building walls and roofs thickly in "volume", but what does his royal greenness know of the market? Government also imagines it can use renewable insulation materials to produce "affordable" housing. Walls and roofs will get thicker, but housing will not be built in sufficient quantity for a growing population, and will not be affordable on most British household incomes.

The green tendency will be to use greater thicknesses of less processed, more laborious-to-install insulation materials, cut-to-fit on site. This will make the walls and roofs on new eco-homes around half a metre thick, but that might be fashionable. Having more material in the walls and roof will show how little energy is used in the new and expensive eco-home.

Thick insulation is an immediate problem in the refurbishment of the stock of 26 million existing houses and flats. It is not always possible to cover the outside with great thicknesses of natural materials that, contrary to the Prince's claim, have a low capacity to insulate. Even industrially produced fibres and foams, which green purists think are too processed, must be used thickly. It is less possible to apply thicknesses of insulation inside the existing home, when most British homes are so small. A lot of filling of masonry cavity walls has been carried out under energy efficiency schemes, with little regard for why the drained air cavity was there in the first place. But no existing housing has walls with cavities of up to the 300mm that would be required for insulants that satisfy greens.

The architectural fact is that only made-to-fit insulation, prefabricated as an industrially processed product, can achieve the thermal performance being discussed with a minimal thickness.

Sheep’s wool and hemp, straw bales, and low-fired clay blocks are positioned increasingly off the scale to the right on thickness. Foam glass as an industrial product is poor as an insulant, as is cellulose fibre. The sorts of glass and mineral fibre insulation that can be bought in any builder's merchant require substantial thicknesses. Foams have better performance, and are familiar as cut-to-fit insulation. However only the use of processed vacuum insulation, as a made-to-fit industrial product reduces insulation thicknesses to the architectural dimensions required.

On behalf of New Labour Miliband boasts that Britain has produced a carbon reduction plan to 2020 that should inspire other industrial and industrialising nations. “Having been the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon budgets, we are now the first country in the world to assign every department a carbon budget alongside its financial budget,” he told the House of Commons. We seem to be the first country in the world to ignore the space- and time-saving potential of construction technologies that require energy in their production processes, but save energy in the long term operation of well serviced buildings.

Britain is retreating from industry and makes an environmental fetish out of bulky "natural" materials that don't work well. Why favour materials that are lightly processed as agricultural crops, or are low-fired but need rendering? Why not accept processing, as all timber is processed, and welcome the durability of fully fired bricks? This carbon obsessed idiocy in construction works against other great materials like concrete, glass, steel and aluminium.

For their part government is insisting that insulation must be renewable and crop-based rather than an industrially processed product. This means that small British houses and flats will be thickly walled and roofed and will be built in too few numbers to accommodate British household growth. Every existing home must be refurbished indefinitely. That is truly pitiful for an old industrial democracy like Britain.

Government abuses the words Industrial and Strategy, sharing the Prince's low aspirations for twenty-first century construction and architecture. An industrial strategy worthy of the name would promote the development of highly processed vacuum insulation, and would expect skills in design, manufacture, installation, and maintenance.

An attempt to make "green jobs" rather than raise productivity and wages, The UK Low Carbon Industrial Strategy should be seen and criticised as an environmentalist strategy of de-industrialisation, because that is precisely what it is.

Ian Abley, Project Manager for audacity, an experienced site Architect, and a Research Engineer at the Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Engineering, Loughborough University. He is co-author of Why is construction so backward? (2004) and co-editor of Manmade Modular Megastructures. (2006) He is planning 250 new British towns.