What Theresa May’s clean growth strategy means

Hywel Davies looks at the questions the clean growth Grand Challenge and Dame Judith Hackitt’s report pose to our readers

Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister, once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’. It was quite a long week in May, with the publication of the review of Building Regulations and fire safety conducted by Dame Judith Hackitt, the announcement of £400m of taxpayer funding for the recladding of public sector high-rise apartment blocks, and a consultation on future regulations for the use of combustible cladding.

In the middle of that, the Prime Minister visited Manchester and made a major speech1 on science, technology and innovation, including the announcement of a series of four Grand Challenges, the fourth of which relates to clean growth.

The government is clearly manoeuvring its industrial policy to support greater innovation after the UK leaves the EU. Its Industrial Strategy identifies areas in which the UK can develop a strategic and competitive advantage for the future. This is nothing new, as Theresa May acknowledged. The development of the marine chronometer, by John Harrison, was the result of a challenge that helped underpin British naval activity.

In her Manchester speech, May argued for the ‘huge potential in a missions-based approach to drive faster solutions’, before describing the first four ‘missions’ of the Industrial Strategy as ambitious, stretching, Grand Challenges with high ambitions.2 Her fourth challenge is of huge relevance to Journal readers – clean growth.

The mission is to be a catalyst for new technologies and more productive methods

The mission is to use new technologies and modern construction practices to halve, at least, the energy use of new buildings by 2030. The PM noted that heating and powering our buildings accounts for 40% of total UK energy use, and said: ‘By making our buildings more energy efficient and embracing smart technologies, we can slash household energy bills, reduce demand for energy, and meet our targets for carbon reduction.’

May is probably not a Journal reader, but we have been arguing this case for some time. We should welcome this realisation in government.

The Challenge focuses on halving the energy use of all new buildings, but aims to halve the costs of achieving this in existing buildings too. This will be done by:

  • Ensuring new buildings in Britain are safe, high quality, more efficient and use clean heating
  • Innovating to make low energy, low carbon buildings cheaper to build
  • Driving lower carbon, lower cost and higher quality construction through innovative techniques
  • Giving consumers more control over how they use energy through smart technologies
  • Halving the cost of renovating existing buildings to a similar standard as new ones, while increasing quality and safety.

It is not just about UK buildings; the mission is to be a catalyst for new technologies and more productive methods, which can be exported to a large and growing global market for clean technologies. CIBSE supports this approach; we already work with universities doing world-leading research into low-temperature heating and cooling, which has led to the development of new products that can save energy, reduce costs for industry, reduce emissions and give ‘UK plc’ a competitive edge.

The government expects this challenge to drive innovation and higher standards in construction. It is one way of helping to meet the ambitious homebuilding targets, and is seen as a way of providing more jobs and opportunity to ‘millions of workers across the country’. It will be interesting to see how training and migration policy rise to this aspect of the challenge.

The Hackitt report is covered in detail here, and it too sets out a challenging mission for government and industry – a new system of building and fire safety regulation for the life of buildings.

While Dame Judith is clear on the direction of travel, there is much detail to be developed, consulted on and delivered. It will need changes to primary legislation – such as the Building Act, which goes back almost as far as Harold Wilson – and to the way the industry plans, designs, delivers and operates buildings, and owners manage them.

Delivering that change, alongside the proposed Grand Challenge of halving energy use in buildings, will be difficult and demanding – but we really have no choice.

Not only do we owe a duty to the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster to do all we can to prevent such an event happening again, we also have to cut our energy use and emissions if we are to be a competitive economy and live in comfortable and healthy homes.


  1. PM speech on science and modern Industrial Strategy 
  2. Grand Challenge policy paper 

Dr Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE.