What Kind of Britain are we Building?

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In this piece, outgoing BRE Chief Executive, Niall Trafford reflects on the challenges facing the Built Environment sector in Britain; how these often serve as proxies for wider societal malaise; issues of quality and consistency, affordability and accountability; populist attacks on evidence and expertise; and the strategies required to navigate towards meaningful change and a brighter, more optimistic future. Above all, he argues, “opinions are cheap but facts are sacred”.

There is much current talk in business and society about “purpose” or the lack of it. Too much of it is hot air. Corporate purpose of course needs to be authentic and ambitious. So when BRE chose “Building a Better World Together”, we deliberately set the bar high. But in that phrase is an open admission that there is room for improvement. What we have currently is simply not good enough.

We have much to do in the UK when it comes to our buildings – our homes, our offices, our schools and hospitals, public realm and wider infrastructure. We haven’t done well enough. And the tragic events of Grenfell nearly two years ago brought this home to us in stark terms. Grenfell of course deeply shocked everyone at BRE, as it did the nation. We continue to support all those investigating its causes – that is fundamental to our public service – and deploy our expertise to understand the root causes of the fire and en- sure that lessons from it are shared and understood. The enquiries will run the course that they must. We are fully supportive of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and her clear call for systemic reform. But the challenges for our country go way beyond Grenfell.

Housing: Quantity, Quality and Certification
We know – and it’s broadly acknowledged – that we simply are not building enough new homes in the UK. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows how an explosion in house prices above income growth has increasingly denied the younger generation of the ability to buy their own home. For 25-to-34-year-olds earning between £22,200 and £30,600 per year, home ownership fell to just 27% in 2016 from 65% two decades previously.

Middle-income young adults born in the late 1980s are now no more likely than those lower down the pay scale to own their own home. Those born in the 1970s were almost as likely as their peers on higher wages to have bought their own home during young adulthood.

This is profoundly altering the outlook of the young. Many feel my/ our generation has let them down and that we are driving a Britain that speaks to social exclusion – based on age, wealth and privilege – and not to one of inclusion, mobility and opportunity.

We must also build well. Over the years we thought we had developed an enviable reputation for standards in the UK. The truth was, at best, rather more nuanced. So, we welcome the Transforming Construction Alliance – of which BRE forms part – which seeks to change the way our buildings and infrastructure are designed, manufactured, integrated and connected within our built environment.

We aim to raise standards and productivity. The way we create buildings is outdated. If cars were hand-built to order using bespoke designs and different supply chains every time, it is easy to imagine how costs would rise and quality would vary widely with increased running costs and safety & environmental risks.

When I heard Dame Judith Hackitt speak recently – as a former head of the Health and Safety Executive – she spoke with pride about the fact we built an Olympics without a single construction site fatality – the first time ever this has occurred.

But what she investigated in terms of regulation and Grenfell dismayed her. What she found was not fit for purpose. As her Review to Government emphasised, she was shocked and appalled at systemic failings and an industry that doesn’t recognise its collective moral responsibility to deliver safe buildings.

Standards require regulation to enforce them. There was talk a number of years ago about a bonfire of the red tape and a scaling back of the role of regulators in the built environment. I’m not sure those voices are being heard so loudly today. You cannot sacrifice quality for quantity whether you are in an Age of Austerity or not – whether it is about buildings, per se, or about healthcare, public services and utilities, or wider infrastructure needs.

It’s been said – with some degree of justification – that the laser-sharp focus on the bottom line that the procurement process has ushered in has gone too far. Cost-cutting has gone beyond the safety limits. We all know that in any walk of life, with any good or service, cheapest is rarely best.

Building for the future
Living in safety is clearly the highest priority. But there are so many other pressing issues and concerns that we must consider when building for the future. How do we deal with the facts of our ageing population? By 2050, 22% of the world’s population will be over 50. In the developed world where we live this proportion will be even higher. What do the elderly need – what will someone like me require to live the good life as I enter the autumn of my years? BRE has worked to create a Dementia House because by 2025 it is estimated that one million people will suffer from the condition.

How is the rapidly advancing digital age and the advent of widespread Artificial Intelligence going to make us rethink how we build? How should we feel about the prospect – as is occurring in reality in Canada – that Google might be building and kitting out the cities of the future? Is this a re-run of The Truman Show?

In the here and now, how are we going to ensure that the hundreds of thousands in our society who continue to suffer fuel poverty can be kept warm during our winters? Around 11% of English households are fuel poor. 65% of English homes could benefit from energy efficiency improvements. BRE has done extensive work in this area. How do we do right by the environment – to ensure the future of our planet – when it comes to reducing our carbon emissions? 23% of carbon emissions come from domestic buildings. 40% of carbon comes from the construction industry.

These are genuine not rhetorical questions. At BRE we may have some possible answers but all of these problems must be considered in the round, as we have been doing in an open engagement programme with the built environment community, across the UK, in recent months. They are inter- dependent. None can be excluded from consideration.

Expertise and Engagement Matters
For some to say “frankly, we’ve had enough of experts” is dis- ingenuous and dangerous. What we do at BRE is based on hard, scientific fact and proper research. Data and analytics are our mainstays. We look at evidence, much of it, and we reach conclusions. Although it is easy to claim we live in a post-expert world – and while I acknowledge the need for inclusion, consultation and involvement when it comes to places in which humans live – I still strongly believe the solutions not just to Grenfell but also the wider challenges of the built environment in the UK must be found from informed, accurate suppositions: from evidence-based research and insights.

“These are genuine not rhetorical questions”

Opinion is cheap – facts are sacred. The depths of BRE’s expertise built up over 97 years is of great value for the common good. None of this should be mistaken for immodesty. In fact, I represent BRE as an act of humility. I don’t for one minute think BRE has all the answers. That is exactly why we have convened a series of roundtables and conversations across the country – asking a broad cross-section of expert contributors to work with us to address the many challenges of our times: from climate change and resilience, to safety, health and wellbeing. The march of technology and the rise of AI will of course impact us all, as will the huge demographic shifts already underway.

BRE remains committed to engaging, listening and learning beyond the usual echo chambers – across the UK, not just London.

The enormity of the task ahead is daunting for all of us. But we have to start somewhere. Currently there is a widespread scepticism even disillusion about a lot that is done in our industry. A lack of trust and a sense that there has been systemic failure. Each and every home must count. Each and every citizen must feel safe and included within a healthy, flourishing society. Human value must trump the easy default to technology and innovation. A new framework of citizen-centric principles and procedures is urgently required. That is what we hope to develop. Building a better world together means always putting people and communities first.

Niall Trafford is outgoing Chief Executive of BRE Group. Niall has been a part of the BRE management team since 2009, when he joined as Chief Operating Officer. Niall joined BRE following a successful career in retail with Marks & Spencer, where he led teams in HR, training, store operations, programme management, strategy, change management and store design and development. Niall was involved with Marks & Spencer’s standard-setting Plan A sustainability programme. Niall has also used strategic expertise as a retail specialist in management consultancy roles.

Frameworks to Build a Better Britain – with an influencer community now 400 in number – was launched in the summer of 2018. It is curated by Jericho Chambers on behalf of BRE Group.

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