Gillian Charlesworth leads senior built environment experts in a debate on Wales’ housing challenges

BRE CEO Gillian Charlesworth leads senior built environment experts in a debate on Wales’ housing challenges as part of the ‘Frameworks to build a better Britain’ series of roundtables

Main topics covered:

  • The challenging economic times in South Wales – highlighted by uncertainties at Port Talbot
  • Low productivity – the Gross Value Added figures for Wales are 17% below the UK average
  • The Future Generations Act and the decarbonisation plan are the catalyst to “change everything: the way we plan, the way that we budget, the way that we deliver”
  • Wales has the wherewithal – both the expertise and the will – to create a better future
  • Clean and green energy provides opportunities – Wales is well on the way to the goal of achieving 70% of its energy from renewables
  • Swansea was the sixth in the “Frameworks to build a better Britain” series of roundtables
  • Watch the participant video interviews
  • Download the event images

Gillian Charlesworth, BRE Group CEO, brought together earlier this summer, senior decision makers, including politicians, civil servants, heads of the Wales’ housing associations and federations, and business leaders representing the built environment community, to discuss and help shape the policies to build a better Britain. The roundtable was held at the Active Building Centre on the Swansea University campus.

The sixth roundtable in the “Frameworks to build a better Britain” series convened by BRE, it was the first in the principality, following a 12-month listening exercise across the UK. The other roundtables, which have brought together a direct stakeholder group of more than 150 influencers, have been hosted in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Coventry and Belfast.

Opening the session, Gillian Charlesworth said: “I’m familiar with the built environment having spent the last 15 years at RICS [the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors]. I’m fully aware that the issues we will discuss today can only be dealt with through people, expertise, collaboration and strong ideas. Many challenges especially around carbon can appear intractable. But this industry must build its influence to bring about necessary change. It is surely possible for the talent within the industry to influence from the ground up. It’s through this sort of event we can achieve this.”

The initial provocation was made by Milica Kitson, the Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence Wales. Milica explained that her organisation was funded by the Welsh government but is now reliant on the construction industry in Wales for its support. “By 2050 Wales will be among the best places to live, learn, work and do business,’ she said. “That’s our goal. And to get there we have a target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% against the 1990 baseline.

“To deliver the seven goals of the Future Generations Act and the decarbonisation plan we will have to change everything: the way we plan, the way that we budget, the way that we deliver. We must take a whole new approach to the built environment.

“Our challenges are long term thinking and planning. Government and the public sector are renowned for seeking ribbon-cutting opportunities but we must get beyond this. Politicians will always want something delivered in their term of office but this must change.

“Secondly, to solve challenges we must use data, facts and evidence. We’ve done a lot of things to buildings in Wales and across the UK over the last five years or more to improve their energy efficiency, and a lot of it was wrong. All organisations wanted to do was spend the money. Let’s sort these houses out, we’ve got to get these people out of fuel poverty. All we did was seal up the houses and made people even more sick. Nobody properly understood basic building physics. So that is all having to be put right now. We’re not learning from good and bad practice. Nobody is really talking about this openly and how much it’s costing to put right.

“We’ve got the oldest building stock in Europe. What do we really know and understand, about the different energy systems talked about in the decarbonisation plan and about the effects of those things in our old buildings. That brings us back to data, facts, evidence.

“Then finally the biggest challenge of all is the behaviours culture generally. In our industry we still are relying on contracts to drive changing behaviours. We think that if we have a collaborative contract everything will be alright. All we’re really doing is managing industry fragmentation with a stick approach. There are few incentives out there for the industry to work collaboratively.

“So, in summary for me, something big has to give. Generally, it takes a crisis, a real crisis such as a natural disaster, war, or financial collapse for this level of change to happen but then a lot of us believe that climate change is that disaster. I’m not convinced that enough people believe that climate change is that disaster.”

Colin King, the Director of BRE in Wales, has over 40 years in the construction industry and empathised with Milica’s views. “My passion is the existing built environment and not jeopardising what we’ve already got. We have the oldest, wettest buildings in the whole of the Western world. I get nervous about governmental drives towards decarbonisation on buildings which actually aren’t physically capable of delivering that improvement and I believe that setting one target for the whole build environment, housing-wise, is a dangerous game to play.

“I think that there are opportunities in pushing certain houses much harder, but certainly being very careful of the 30% of our existing building stock which was built before 1920. At what cost is that decarbonisation? I used to help manage and maintain the Cardiff Council stock when we had 26,000 houses and the risks that came with those of getting it wrong. It’s been done badly too many times before to start reinventing bad decisions.

“It’s as if we really learnt nothing in 20 years: the model that has to change is the classic lowest priced and with lowest price comes highest risk. I provide technical support to the Welsh Government as their senior technical advisor on housing standards and building regulations. We need targets and they need to be challenging, but let’s not forget the people who have to deliver this. The social housing sector, the risk that they have to their tenants and their whole structure. And cost. It can’t be down to end cost; financial or people. Let’s decide what we’re going to do and let’s do it. We’ve got enough white elephants and we’ve done pilots until we’re sick of them. Let’s decide what the answer is and let’s just do it whatever that is. We’ve prevaricated long enough.”

The roundtable attendees included:

  1. Gareth Nutt from Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council
  2. Professor Phillip Jones is the Chair of Architectural Science and Chair of the Low Carbon Research Institute
  3. Ceri Doyle, CEO, Newport City Homes
  4. Martin Nicholls, Director of Place at Swansea Council
  5. John O’Brien, BRE’s Associate Director for Construction Innovation
  6. Ryan Stuckey, a practising architect in the South Wales valleys and Programme Director in Architectural Technology at the School of Architecture in Swansea
  7. Colin King, the Director of BRE in Wales
  8. Milica Kitson, the Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence Wales

BRE’s mission is to improve the built environment through research, standards and knowledge generation. The “Frameworks to build a better Britain” series of invitation-only influencer roundtables around the UK draws on ideas, engages and builds on stakeholders’ experiences both within and external to the roundtables and seeks to find innovative and collaborative solutions to the challenge.

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BRE’s press office on pressoffice@bregroup.com or +44 (0)1923 664455.

Notes to Editors

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