24 July 2017
Brexit and State Subsidy Withdrawals Devastate UK Green Home Sector
Exhibitor and visitor numbers tumbled at this year's Ecobuild event, as both the vagaries of the Brexit decision and declining government commitment to the environmental sector saw uncertainty and a lack of funding begin to hit home.
The looming uncertainty brought about by the Brexit decision, as well as changes to the UK government's policies on green subsidies, rendered this year's Ecobuild event a shadow of its former self. With a clear decline in support for solar and other renewable power sources, efficient building moved centre stage this year, with innovative approaches to offsite construction and efficient refurbishment attracting particular attention.
Until relatively recently, the primary drivers of growth in the sustainable building sector were a series of government incentive packages, most notably Feed In Tariffs (FIT), the Renewable Heating Initiatives and the Green Deal scrappage and cash back allowances. With the FIT programme having been cut back dramatically, only five of last year's 51 solar PV exhibitors returned, with Jinko Solar – one of the many to favour China-manufactured solar panels – being one of the few to support the 2017 event. A similar downward trend was evident in a number of other sectors within the show's remit.
Understandably, many exhibitors expressed concern over the decline in the size of the event and the fall in overall attendance, although the continuing opportunity to make new contacts proved some compensation. Overall, though, Ecobuild is valued as much for its conference and seminar programme as for its trade show and, this year, it clearly demonstrated it could still call on the services of many of the key figures in the sector.
Keen to strike an upbeat note, many asserted that, despite the government's less than proactive stance and the lingering uncertainties associated with Brexit, considerable opportunities remained within the UK market. Indeed, a government White Paper published earlier this year outlined the need to build 250,000 new homes in order to keep up with the rising demand for housing. It was also estimated that some 26 million homes across the UK are in urgent need of refurbishment if acceptable standards of energy efficiency are to be achieved. All of which, taken together, does rather raise the question as to just why the industry isn't thriving.
The short answer, according to many, is that the UK housing market is 'broken'. Shortages of land, labour and investment, together with delays in securing planning permission, were all frequently cited as problems, while developers are said to be notoriously reluctant to build affordable, sustainable housing rather than high-value homes.
Several of the conference discussions focused on these very issues, with Tony Pidgley, Chairman of Berkley Homes, a UK house builder, calling on the government to cut red tape as a way of jump-starting the planning system. Michael Portillo, meanwhile, himself a former government minister, called for a dramatic intervention by the current administration in order to deliver thousands of new council houses.
For his part, Ben Derbyshire, President-elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), advocated a building programme in outer London at a much higher density than the existing legally sanctioned 15 dwellings per hectare. Other speakers, though, emphasised the need to protect parkland and green belt, highlighting the importance of maintaining healthy places and placing green infrastructure at the heart of all decision making.
Incentives for the building of affordable housing for both renters and buyers, as well as the need for longevity for any new housing stock, were also discussed. Indicating one way forward, Graeme Craig, the Commercial Development Director of Transport For London, the body responsible for overseeing the UK capital's public-transport networks, said that his organisation frequently entered into joint initiatives with developers with the aim that 50% of each such project should be given over to affordable housing.
Under UK law, a viability report must be submitted in all instances when a developer cannot guarantee to deliver a minimum percentage of affordable homes in the case of any project with 10 or more units. At present, the national minimum is 20%, although local planning bodies can raise the threshold as high as 35%. There are, however, concerns as to the quality of these affordable homes, with off-site construction posited as a means of both raising standards and tackling the shortfall in traditional skills.
Addressing this very issue, Lord Norman Foster, one of the UK's most distinguished architects, outlined the need for a 35% growth in the size of the workforce available to the construction industry, as well as the importance of developing enhanced apprenticeship schemes.
Overall, he maintained that, unless the construction industry is treated as a special case, there could be as much as a 9% drop in the level of available skilled staff post-Brexit. He also noted that fluctuating exchange rates and changes in international financing were also likely to exacerbate the situation.
In terms of offsite construction, a sector seen by many as offering at least partial salvation, this enjoyed strong representation this year, with no fewer than 27 such exhibitors participating in the 2017 trade show. One company to command particular attention was Diamondmodule, a joint German/Polish venture, whose truck-mounted apartment unit attracted queues throughout the three-day show.
The use of offsite-manufactured walls and roofs, together with a services module that provides all grid connections and intelligent control, was addressed in a seminar hosted by Energiesprong, a Netherlands-based specialist in the affordable-housing sector. At present, the company is trialling a large-scale domestic refurbishment initiative in the East Midlands region of the UK. Each refurbishment is said to take less than a week, does not require the occupants to move out and is said to fund itself from the long-term savings on energy costs it delivers.
Stafford-based Intatec, meanwhile, was keen to promote its Utility Pod system, a service module said to be particularly suitable as part of a communal heat network (CHN). According to Tony Brown, a Sales Executive with the company, the system takes slow-pressure communal hot water, then passes it through a series of heat exchangers to provide domestic water and heating. The system can be delivered directly to site at the optimum build stage as a fully finished and tested product.
A service module was also on offer from Chelmsford-based Magic Box International, which has adopted a modular approach in a bid to simplify the installation of its solar-assisted heat pumps. Essentially, air-sourced heat pumps suitable for mounting on evaporators in external locations, they are said to extract energy from the surrounding air, while also having the facility to absorb solar radiation.
A range of other solar-assisted heat pumps was also on show, including a system from Portugal-based Energie that was said to even be able to extract heat from snow. With the capacity for day or night operation, the system can be integrated into an existing solar PV installation and uses any excess electricity to heat water, storing any energy not destined for batteries or for export to the grid.
Another hybrid approach to domestic systems came courtesy of Geothermal, a North East of England-based specialist leader in both ground-sourced and air-sourced heat pumps. This year, the company was launching a new generation of solar PV products, a range said to have the facility to both generate electricity and collect solar-heated air, which can then be filtered and circulated around the home.
The company also distributes the Store-H, a solar heat battery constructed using phase change material. When the temperature drops, the material solidifies and emits any stored heat.
Specifiers of communal and industrial heat networks are also the target market for many manufacturers of biomass-fuelled boilers, including both the pellet-burning and log-gasification varieties. Such installations also require accumulator tanks, pumps and insulated network piping, as well as intelligent control and monitoring systems. Looking to meet all of these requirements, Salzburg-based Windhager had on offer an extensive range of biomass burners, while Germany's Overtop was keen to promote its comprehensive array of valves, controls and complete systems.
As well as these larger players, Ecobuild still had room for a number of smaller businesses and start-ups. Distinguishing itself on this front was eLEDglance, a small family-owned business based in Birmingham, which is starting to make a name for itself with its range of indoor lights and LED-lit garden furniture and pots. All of its products are either mains-powered or make use of induction-charged batteries and can be controlled via a proprietary smartphone app.
Ecobuild 2017 took place from 7-9 March at London's Excel Centre. The event featured 450 exhibitors and attracted more than 20,000 attendees.
Glenville Holmes, Special Correspondent, London