Retrofitting UK’s historic estate could add £35bn to economy each year
Improving the energy efficiency of historic properties could reduce carbon emissions from the UK’s buildings by an estimated 5% each year and generate £35bn of output in the economy, while making homes warmer and cheaper to run, according to a report by the National Trust, Peabody, Historic England, The Crown Estate and Grosvenor.
The organisations have joined together to highlight the huge social, environmental and economic opportunities offered by building a workforce with the necessary skills and training to ensure the UK’s historic buildings contribute to a net zero future.
The report highlights the vital contribution that historic buildings can make in the fight against climate change, and focuses on the scale of the opportunity to address the skills gap required to meet this challenge.
More than 105,000 new workers, including plumbers, electricians, carpenters and scaffolders, will be needed to work solely on decarbonising the UK’s historic buildings every year for the next three decades in order for the UK to meet its 2050 net zero target.
Buildings in the UK are responsible for around one fifth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, with historic buildings accounting for a significant proportion. Some 6.2 million UK homes – around one in five – and a third of all commercial buildings – around 600,000 in total – were built before 1919.
Retrofitting – such as ensuring windows and heating systems are more energy efficient – lowers emissions and can prolong the life of an older building. It avoids the carbon emissions associated with demolishing and building new – particularly the large amount of carbon emissions from cement and steel produced by construction.
Retrofitting requires skilled workers, regardless of the age and construction of a building. But adapting historic buildings requires even more specialist skills and training. Plumbers will need to be able to work with heat pumps and hydrogen boilers, and many existing workers will need to be taught additional specialist skills to ensure heritage characteristics are protected and the work undertaken is appropriate to the type of construction.
Without urgently addressing the need for these extra skills and jobs, the report finds that the UK might face a backlog of retrofit projects in the 2030s and risks losing some of its cultural heritage if these building become uninhabitable. The additional skills needed, combined with a general shortage of skills in the construction industry, creates a perfect storm of a challenge.
“As Chris Skidmore’s net zero review identified, we need to grasp the historic opportunity tackling climate change offers us,” said Tor Burrows, Grosvenor’s executive director of sustainability and innovation.
“The Environmental Audit Committee has called for a national mobilisation on energy efficiency. We believe this captures the urgency of the task. The UK needs a long-term national retrofit strategy, led by the government, positively bringing together training, funding, and standards to sensitively decarbonise our historic buildings.”
The report encourages the government to make the apprenticeship levy more flexible, allowing unspent funds to be channelled into training more people in the heritage retrofit field. Grosvenor has pledged to transfer up to £50,000 of its levy each year to smaller businesses looking to bring new skills to their workforce.
Levy money could also be used to fund six to eight-week bootcamps for people interested in joining the sector, or to help existing workers acquire the specialist skills needed.
More than £3bn of unused Apprenticeship Levy was returned to the Treasury between May 2019 and July 2022.
Lord Kerslake, chair of Peabody, said: “The benefits of prioritising our historic buildings are economic as well as environmental and social. They are an important source of prosperity and growth, with the heritage sector directly contributing £14.7bn to the economy in 2019.
“Making these buildings energy efficient will stimulate spending in the construction industry, support around 290,000 jobs in supply chains and boost heritage-related tourism and hospitality.
“And where needed, making older homes more energy efficient will transform the lives of the people who live and work in them, reducing household energy bills and improving health and wellbeing.”