Does My Embodied Carbon Look Big In This?

M&S used to be the bellwether of the retail sector but its proposed demolition and redevelopment of its 456 – 472 Oxford Street store, in preference to refurbishment and extension, is as likely to be a bellwether of decision makers’ approach to carbon efficiency and in particular to justifying the loss of embodied carbon.

Siri, give me a definition of embodied carbon:

Embodied carbon means all the CO2 emitted in producing materials. It’s estimated from the energy used to extract and transport raw materials as well as emissions from manufacturing processes.

The embodied carbon of a building can include all the emissions from the construction materials, the building process, all the fixtures and fittings inside as well as from deconstructing and disposing of it at the end of its lifetime.” (UCL engineering faculty).

Plainly, maximising the carbon efficiency of new development should be a significant material consideration in the determination of planning applications. But it’s not easy. How, for instance, to weigh longer term operational carbon savings against the one-off carbon costs associated with demolition and rebuild? And how much weight is to be given to carbon saving in the planning process as against other considerations?

You can look in vain for any specific guidance in the National Planning Policy Framework. The “planning for climate change” section (paragraphs 153 to 158) is of course woefully out of date, with an update promised mañana. Climate crisis what crisis?

Even so, the issue was raised by the Secretary of State when he dismissed the Tulip appeal (11th November 2021): “Although considerable efforts have been made to adopt all available sustainability techniques to make the construction and operation of the scheme as sustainable as possible” the result would still amount to “a scheme with very high embodied energy and an unsustainable whole life-cycle.” The Secretary of State also agreed with the Inspector: “that the extensive measures that would be taken to minimise carbon emissions during construction would not outweigh the highly unsustainable concept of using vast quantities of reinforced concrete for the foundations and lift shaft to transport visitors to as high a level as possible to enjoy a view.

Notwithstanding the lack of national policy guidance, the London Plan does have a policy hook, Policy SI 2:

Not only that, as of 17 March 2022 the policy is supported by London Plan Guidance, Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessments and on the circular economy.

I want to scoot through the sequence of events so far in relation to the M&S proposal.

Its application for planning permission was submitted to Westminster City Council on 2 July 2021, proposing the demolition of the three buildings that comprise its 456 – 472 Oxford Street store, to make way for a comprehensive redevelopment to provide a building comprising two basement levels, ground and nine upper floors. The proposal would provide an office and retail led mixed use development. The oldest of the buildings, Orchard House, dates from the 1930s. Two comprise basement plus six storeys and one being basement plus seven storeys. Given the changing retail economy, the need for substantial changes to buildings such as this is of course no surprise. The scheme is by architects Philbrow & Partners.

Fred Philbrow stresses the lower lifetime carbon emissions that will arise from the new building, rather than a retrofit:

“It’s not always right to refurbish” old structures, Pilbrow told Dezeen, claiming that the contentious project is akin to trading in a gas guzzler for a Tesla.

“I would liken this to a discussion about a not-very-well-performing diesel car from the 1970s,” he said. “And what we’re trying to do is replace it with a Tesla.

In the short term, the diesel car has got less embodied carbon,” he added. “But very quickly, within between nine and 16 years, we will be ahead on carbon because our Tesla will perform better.” (Dezeen, 17 December 2021).

The application was resolved to be approved by Westminster City Council on 23 November 2021, despite last minute objections from Save Britain’s Heritage and others. The report says this on carbon:

The applicant has submitted a Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessment (WLCA) prepared by Arup, as required by Policy SI2 of the London Plan and City Plan Policy 36.

The WLCA includes a comparative assessment of the whole life carbon emissions of a ‘light touch’ refurbishment versus new build development options. The report sets out that refurbishment option has the lowest embodied carbon impact initially because minimal works (and materials) are required. However, this increases over time due to the required maintenance and poor operational performance of the existing buildings.

The assessment concludes that the new build option is the most efficient scenario, especially through the implementation of the low-carbon opportunities recommended in the report. Whilst it has a higher initial embodied carbon than the refurbishment option as it needs to be built (with a high carbon expenditure) – over its operational lifetime it will require much less maintenance than the refurbishment option and be a more efficient building, providing a betterment from years 15/16.

The GLA in their stage 1 response requested the applicant to complete the GLA’s WLCA assessment template. This has been submitted to the GLA and an update on this position with regard to London Plan policy S12 will be reported verbally at the Committee meeting.”

The resolution was subject to referral to the Mayor of London and completion of a section 106 agreement, including an index linked carbon offset payment of £1,198,134 payable prior to the commencement of development.

On the same day as Westminster’s resolution to grant, Historic England turned down a request by objectors that the building be listed.

The Mayor confirmed on 7 March 2022 that he was not going to intervene. However, Save Britain’s Heritage complained that he had not taken into account representations that they had made, including a report they had commissioned from Simon Sturgis Why a Comprehensive Retrofit Is more Carbon Efficient than the Proposed New Build. Simon had previously advised the Mayor on his emerging carbon policies. [NB see Simon Sturgis’ subsequent comments on this blog post at the foot of the page]

Unusually, the Mayor then decided he was going to reconsider the issue:

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London, said: ‘In line with London Plan policy on Whole Life Carbon, the question of retention and refurbishment or demolition and new build was considered in the GLA’s assessment of this application, and based on officer advice that there was no sound planning reason to intervene, on 7 March the Mayor made the decision to allow Westminster to determine the application.

However, City of Westminster is yet to issue its planning decision, and the GLA has now published its planning guidance on Whole Life Carbon and Circular Economy. In light of this situation GLA officers consider it would be prudent to consider a further Stage 2 report, which would also allow consideration of the detailed report by Simon Sturgis examining the carbon emissions impacts of the proposed demolition. An updated Stage 2 report will be presented for consideration at the Mayor’s meeting on Monday 4 April.’” (Architects Journal, 1 April 2022).

However, his decision on 4 April 2022 was the same – no intervention. The stage 2 report and addendum report are available here.

Given the assessment that the Mayor will have made as against his own policies, more up to date and stringent than those of the Government, it is perhaps disappointing for those who believe in devolved decision making then to read that Michael Gove has, presumably in response to further representations (see eg Save Britain’s Heritage’s letter dated 20 April 2022) issued a holding direction preventing Westminster City Council from issuing planning permission until he has decided whether to call it in. The holding direction, under Article 31 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015, is only a precautionary procedural step to buy time and doesn’t at all mean that the Secretary of State is definitely going to call the application in, just that he is considering whether to do that. Indeed holding directions are not particularly unusual in relation to controversial proposals where the Secretary of State has received requests from objectors for him to use his call in powers. seeking call in. But frankly it’s anybody’s guess what will now happen.

The planning system is certainly curious in its inconsistencies. What about the “demolish and rebuild” permitted development rights for some categories of building, introduced in August 2020? Or that demolition of itself does not usually require formal planning permission?

Concluding thoughts:

⁃ climate change considerations should increasingly be central to planning decision making

⁃ but it’s no use the Government reacting in an ad hoc way to specific proposals – up to date, practical, guidance is needed to manage everyone’s expectations – a lengthy call in inquiry is in no-one’s interests

⁃ it shouldn’t be about the easy headlines and twitter pile-ons, but about robust detailed calculations.

⁃ watch how heritage campaign groups continue to accentuate the embodied carbon issue: embodied carbon vs operational savings via more efficient buildings is going to be a constant battleground.

For further reading: Material Considerations: Climate change, embodied carbon and the role of planners (Lichfields’ Alison Bembenek, 11 Feb 2022).

For further listening: Blackstock’s PropCast podcast M&S refurbishment row: experts say demolition decisions need to be about more than just carbon (21 April 2022).

Talking of listening…no clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned discussion this week but plenty of previous episodes to listen to here and some good sessions lined up….

Simon Ricketts, 23 April 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

3 thoughts on “Does My Embodied Carbon Look Big In This?”

  1. My basic issue is that there is a fundamental disconnect between what Govt and local authorities say about climate change and what they actually do. We have national legislation requiring ‘net zero by 2050’ and ‘78% emissions reductions by 2035’, and from local authorities, including GLA and Westminster, ‘climate emergency declarations etc etc’. With the M&S proposal we have with both the GLA and Westminster various additional declarations about prioritising retrofit. But what happens in practice? The answer in this and many other cases is ‘business as usual’. So how do Govt/Local authorities expect to meet their respective legislation and declarations if they do not change what they have been doing for decades? With M&S we have a situation where a large new build is being said to be more carbon efficient than a retrofit, which in overall whole life carbon terms is just not true. The ‘lick of paint’ retrofit chosen by M&S’s team is designed to prove that this option won’t work. However if you were to do a proper comprehensive retrofit including additions, reorganisation and achieving current environmental standards, this would be a sensible proposition. In simple terms, if you were to draw a line from 100% emissions in 1990 to net zero in 2050, and identified what needs to be achieved in each intervening year, the new build scheme would be on the wrong side of this line (i.e. outside the net zero trajectory) whereas the retrofit would be on the right side (consistent with achieving the net zero target). So although the logic is clear, at the moment planning policy has not caught up with the ‘net zero’ and ‘78% reduction’ requirements. The dilemma for Mr Gove is does he A) go with the Govt’s stated overarching Net Zero objectives or does he B) take the safe route and follow Mr Khan in avoiding the issue. My view is obviously to reject the application, and put M&S (who strongly claim green credentials) in the very difficult position of having to challenge this. If Mr Gove and the Govt want different outcomes consistent with their stated net zero objectives then they need to do things differently across the UK economy. For the construction sector, responsible for a considerable proportion of UK emissions this is a very good place to start. As Mark Carney said “We can’t get to net zero by flipping a green switch. We need to rewire our entire economies”. This is as significant a change as the 18th/19th Century transition from a rural to and industrial economy, and we need to get on with it.

    Liked by 1 person

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