Climate change can’t wait much longer

Life in historic houses Why our places matter

2023 is set to be the hottest year on record. The terrifying effects of our changing climate can be seen and felt across the world – even in the UK, where heat has not exactly been a problem this year, swathes of the country have been battered by multiple storms, and severe flooding has caused serious damage. Our housing stock is the oldest in Europe: more than six million homes were built pre-1919, but they were not built to withstand the effects of the climate emergency. If these buildings are to survive for another century – or more – they must be allowed to adapt, and swiftly.

We know that Historic Houses members care deeply about decarbonising – 98% have stated that they want to reach net zero. But doing this is not easy, and particularly not when 87% say that they believe the current planning system is blocking them from decarbonising. We were delighted when the government announced, back in April 2022, that they would be reviewing the barriers facing listed buildings installing energy efficiency measures – but despite sustained pressure from us, and other organisations in the sector, we are yet to see the outcome of these reviews, which were originally scheduled to be published a year ago.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of the watering down of various net zero policies in September caused further concern. The UK has legally binding net zero commitments, and it is clear that rather than u-turning or dithering on policy choices, clear targets need to be set and the appropriate help and support given to individuals and businesses to ensure that these are met.

Heritage protection is, of course, of the utmost importance. But Historic Houses members’ places have survived so long precisely because they have been allowed to adapt and change to best fit the needs of the times. The climate emergency is a very real threat, and already many houses are suffering: gutters and drains, for example, which were not built to cope with the intense downpours and flash flooding we have seen in recent years. Greater fluctuations in temperature across the year play havoc with collections and building fabric. Higher temperatures mean an increase in pests, as well as plant diseases. Increased risks of flooding and rising sea levels at places like Holkham and Somerleyton are a serious cause for concern.

Ensuring that we have a robust planning system which supports historic buildings in their efforts to decarbonise and become more energy efficient is vital in the years to come. This comes in a variety of ways: perhaps the easiest would be to ensure that high-impact, low-risk adaptations like secondary glazing, loft insulation and solar panels are clearly identified as measures which do not need listed building consent. Introducing a Listed Building Consent Order on air source and ground source heat pumps would remove a significant barrier for owners who want to invest in low-carbon heating. And, of course, ensuring that the planning system more broadly is better resourced and has the necessary expertise is vital in tackling not just the climate emergency, but the housing crisis faced across the UK.

We were delighted to be awarded funding from Historic England to run a heritage-specific carbon literacy course for Historic Houses members in early 2024, and we will continue to work together with our colleagues across the sector – and beyond – to share best practice and lobby for change.

As delegates from across the world meet at COP28 this week, to take stock of progress and to call for greater climate action, we hope that government will take note of the urgent need to take action in order to ensure custodians can safeguard our shared heritage for the future.