We need fewer, smaller, greener and more affordable homes that improve people’s quality of life, says Chris Brown

Chris AWOl crop

This is going to come as a shock to some: the purpose of housebuilders is to profit from solving the problems of people, place and planet, not to profit from trashing them.

And if that was not shock enough, I am paraphrasing the editor of that bastion of neo-liberal economics Lionel Barber, former editor of the Financial Times.

And he is not alone. I was told recently that the top level of the Treasury now realises that continuous and infinite growth of GDP is not a rational expectation anymore. We have already crashed through the planet’s limits and will continue to pay the price for generations to come.

The spectacular popularity of Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, which provides an economist’s rationale for the aim of meeting society’s needs within the planet’s limits, shows the widespread global traction that this change of direction for capitalism is taking.

So you might expect me to welcome housebuilders who claim to have carbon-positive or zero-carbon operations. But I can’t.

I don’t know if these organisations are deliberately trying to mislead or are just ignorant. But buying carbon offsets for the electricity used in your offices, or for the petrol and diesel used in your 4x4s or Bentleys, doesn’t cut it when every house you build is as damaging to the planet as around 50 transatlantic flights – and these are ignored in your calculations.

And the offsets you are buying, though useful in many ways, are priced at about 10% of the carbon pricing level (£95 a tonne) that both Treasury and the London Plan assess as necessary for the transition of the UK to a low-carbon economy.

If we start from the premise that building houses is a good thing, particularly if they are affordable to people on low incomes, then the sector should be starting from a good place. So why are developers so little trusted?

It may be something to do with the egregious remuneration paid to senior management, or the manipulative behaviour seen in the planning process.

Or it may just be that we are not seen to place good outcomes for people, place and planet as our first priority, before profit.

As Greta Thunberg taught us last year, no one is too small to make a difference

The world that Barber is describing has been carefully researched by a programme led by Professor Colin Mayer under the auspices of the British Academy about the future of the corporation and entitled principles for purposeful business. In it, improving the condition of people, place and planet would be the purpose of all house building businesses.

It would not be enough to build homes. We would also need to improve people’s health and wellbeing, to build social capital and social cohesion in local communities, be carbon negative, biodiversity positive and much more.

This will sound ridiculous to some readers. Many will feel powerless to move in this direction because of the market forces that buffet us at every turn.

And it is true that a system made up of price-maximising landowners, return-maximising investors and value for money-maximising customers, with weak regulation, inevitably leads to this point.

But, as Greta Thunberg taught us last year, no one is too small to make a difference.

Think of the leadership, power and influence that the chief executive of a housebuilder would have if they decided to give up their multi-million pound bonuses and chose to build to the 2025 Future Homes Standard today.

The forces on us are building and, if we don’t respond positively and rapidly, they may overwhelm us

It is now self-evident to most people that business should take responsibility for much more than making profits. For example, we only have one decade to fix the climate crisis.

We cannot wait until 2025 to reach operational zero-carbon. And business cannot hide behind the illusory shield of ‘it’s not our responsibility’.

If we all do it together, positive change will start to appear. 

The forces on us are building and, if we don’t respond positively and rapidly, they may overwhelm us.

The climate emergency was an electoral issue for the first time last year. This government will make us build homes that are operationally near zero-carbon. We should welcome this as a protection against more extreme outcomes.

And, as our customers understand more about the extent to which building a new home trashes the planet, they will either buy less or demand better. If we don’t find ways of substantially reducing the carbon spewed out every time we build a new house, of making them actually carbon-neutral, then we cannot expect a future for the industry.

The spectre of losing our licence to operate will loom so long as we fail to understand the anger that the public feels towards an industry it perceives to be uncaring, untrustworthy and greedy.

Investment choices are already being made to move away from fossil fuels. The next in line will be the extractive industries – cement, concrete, bricks, steel. And then they could come for aviation and building.

Or the next wave of investment may be from a new generation seeking positive impact from their savings rather than just avoiding those companies that do most damage.

Instead of greedily lobbying for more climate-destroying houses to be built, we should be arguing for fewer, smaller, greener and more affordable homes that improve people’s quality of life.

It will first require a mindset change. And it is a big one for our sector that is not known for its innovation ability.

But every coal mine requires its canaries and, in Kate Raworth, Colin Mayer and Lionel Barber, we may have found ours.

Chris Brown is executive chair and founder of Igloo