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Conservation area restrictions are stifling climate action, new research finds

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Conservation area restrictions are stifling climate action, new research finds

Homes in conservation areas may be responsible for between 3 and 4million tons of avoidable CO2 emissions every year.

 Retrofitting homes can not only improve energy efficiency, but also reduce household bills and lower carbon footprint. Retrofitting can be a complex and costly process for any household. But new research shows that additional restrictions in conservation areas are putting residents off making changes to their homes, changes that could reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by between 3 and 4 million tonnes every year.

There are over 10,000 conservation areas in England, and every local authority has at least one. Some local authorities, such as Bath, Islington and Westminster, have over 50% of their housing stock in conservation areas.

In most conservation areas, adding photovoltaic installations that are visible from the street, exterior wall insulation or window replacements requires planning permission from the local authority. Professor Thiemo FetzerLink opens in a new window, from the University of Warwick and the CAGE Research CentreLink opens in a new window, has calculated the extent to which these restrictions are deterring homeowners from making their homes more energy efficient.

Analysing data from Energy Performance Certificates and granular actual energy consumption data at postcode level for 239 English local authorities for which data was available, Professor Fetzer calculated the ‘energy efficiency gap’ of homes in conservation areas. He found that the 2 million properties inside conservation areas could save between 17,000 and 21,500 GwH in energy per year and between 3 and 4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year if they were retrofitted to the highest standard.

Most homes across the country are not fitted to the highest standard of energy efficiency. But a comparison of retrofitting of homes inside conservation areas with homes of a similar age, size, price, council tax status, and location outside conservation areas shows that homes in conservation areas are falling behind on retrofitting. In fact, this ‘retrofit gap’ (the difference in the amount and quality of retrofitting between homes in conservation areas and similar homes outside conservation areas) accounts for between 5 and 15% of the energy efficiency gap in conservation areas.

As properties outside conservation areas can retrofit at a faster rate (because they do not have to wait for planning departments to approve the works) this retrofit gap is widening.

The research demonstrates the urgent need for policymakers to find ways to make retrofitting easier in conservation areas. Professor Fetzer said,

Through retrofitting residents can play their part in addressing the climate crisis. But the data suggests that restrictions in conservation areas are a significant barrier. Removing or reforming these restrictions is something that all local authorities should look at urgently.

A toolkit developed by Christopher Procter of the Architects Climate Action NetworkLink opens in a new window may provide some concrete input into effective changes that councils across the UK should consider.

Professor Fetzer added:

Conservation areas originated in a period that saw fast changes to the lived environment brought about by growing car ownership in the 1960s. The climate crisis is the direct result of the carbonization of our economies and societies that followed. I hope that in 2023, residents living in conservation areas can reconnect with their original purpose: to limit the rapid environmental change. Back in the 1960s, the environment was changing because of growing car use – now, global heating is a much more fundamental threat to the lived environment. To achieve that, residents in conservation areas need to come together and become advocates for change. In the current regulatory environment, they threaten to fall behind.”

Policy wise, the government could be now very quick to announce a retrofit funding package for conservation areas. But this would be not very wise. Residents in conservation areas are, on average, better off financially than residents outside. So financially, they should not be given an untargeted hand-out to do what needs to be done. Rather, the government and local authorities should be investing in their own skills and capabilities, for example, by working with researchers together to spring to action to help residents in conservation areas to redefine what constitutes the specific character of their area and devise a plan on how to retrofit at scale in a coordinated and cost effective manner.”