Retrofitting historic buildings could generate £35bn a year

Retrofitting historic buildings could generate £35bn a year, according to a new report. Image credit: National Trust/James Dobson.

A new report is calling for industry and government collaboration to build a workforce capable of meeting the UK’s climate goals and safeguarding the UK’s historic buildings, while creating new construction jobs.

The National Trust, Peabody, Historic England, The Crown Estate and Grosvenor, who commissioned the report, said retrofitting the UK’s historic buildings will support £35bn of economic output annually.

The organisations have joined together to highlight the 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.

Improving the energy efficiency of historic properties could reduce carbon emissions from the UK’s buildings by an estimated 5% each year, while making homes warmer and cheaper to run, according to the report which will be officially launched at The Palace of Westminster on Tuesday 7 March.

The report shows that 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 30 years for the UK to meet its 2050 net zero target.

“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 construction industry, businesses and training providers need support to scale up. That’s why we’re asking the government to work with us on creating a national retrofit strategy that sets out a clear path for upskilling the current workforce while bringing in a whole new generation.”

Buildings in the UK are responsible for around a fifth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, with historic buildings accounting for a significant proportion. Around one in five - 6.2m UK homes - 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. 

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. 

An estimated 100,000 people currently work on historic buildings, but up to 105,000 new workers - including 14,500 more electricians and 14,300 more plumbers - will be needed each year until 2050 to focus solely on upgrading buildings built before 1919.  

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. £3.3bn 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 £14.7 billion 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.”

Hilary McGrady, director general of the National Trust, added: “The stewardship of our built heritage is in our hands, and we must ensure we prepare it for the challenges of climate change. It’s a significant task, but it’s one we can achieve through co-ordinated action. But that action must be taken now.” 

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