27 March 2024

Want to build more houses? Make them greener

By Will Prescott

Few policy areas generate as much rancour as climate change and the housing shortage. However, while the two areas seem disconnected, new polling commissioned by Bright Blue indicates that improving the climate resilience of new homes can also help reduce opposition to the construction of new homes.  

It is no secret that the UK faces a massive housing shortage. One Centre for Cities report, for example, estimated that ‘compared to the average European country’, the UK has ‘a backlog of 4.3m homes. The shortage, especially acute in London and South East England, has left renters battling surging rents and would-be homeowners struggling to save for a deposit. The lack of affordable housing has in turn made it much harder for younger people to start families and has contributed to growing intergenerational resentment. 

Unfortunately, tackling the housing shortage has proven politically very difficult. Fears about an electoral backlash led the Johnson Government to abandon much-needed planning reform, which would have likely facilitated an increase in housebuilding. Two years later, pressure from nervous backbench MPs forced the Sunak Government to abandon compulsory local authority housing targets, only making the problem worse.  

At the same time, there are also severe doubts about how effectively the UK’s housing stock can withstand the effects of climate change. As temperatures rise, the UK can expect more extreme weather. The expected annual damage from floods, for example, could increase by as much as 180% by the 2080s under a worst-case scenario. 

Storms are not the only problem. According to one estimate, the east of England faces ‘projected water shortages of 800 million litres per day by 2050. Overall, the Climate Change Committee found there were more than 50 climate-related risks to UK homes. 

Bright Blue’s polling indicates that many voters are worried about their home’s climate resilience. For our latest report, Greater and greener development, Bright Blue polled UK public attitudes on the importance of and potential policies for greater and greener housing and infrastructure development levels in the UK.

Indeed, nearly 60% of those aged between 18 and 24 were either ‘somewhat concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about their own home’s ability to withstand climate-related emergencies. While, that percentage was lower across all voters (41%) and lower still among 2019 Conservative voters, even in this group nearly a third of that group were either ‘somewhat concerned’ or ‘very concerned’. 

What’s more, our polling also makes clear that ensuring new homes are environmentally friendly can go some way to increasing support for housebuilding. Over half of those surveyed (55%) were more likely to support ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of new housing development in their local area if it meets a high environmental standard, such as those homes with exceptionally low carbon emissions and high energy and high energy water efficiency. Crucially, this included half of those who voted Conservative in 2019. 

Moreover, voters are more likely to support new development in their local areas if it is particularly climate resilient. 51% of those polled were either ‘much more likely’ or ‘somewhat more likely’ to be more supportive of climate-resilient development, including 52% of 2019 Conservative voters. While lower than the share among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters (61% and 61% respectively), it suggests that stressing climate resilience can reduce opposition to housebuilding across party lines. 

Addressing climate resilience will not eliminate all opposition to housebuilding. It will not convince those resolutely opposed to building on any portion of the countryside. Nor will it convince those who, despite evidence to the contrary, believe that enough housing stock already exists. However, addressing some of the key voter concerns around housebuilding and environmental challenges can at least go some way to winning the popular consent needed to address the problem. In the present climate, that would be a great start.

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Will Prescott is a Researcher at Bright Blue.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.