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The West Midlands should be "leading from the front" on sustainability.

The second in a series of our 'Simplify Sustainability' regional roundtables took place in Birmingham in November 2022. A ten-strong panel of built environment experts discussed sustainability, decarbonisation, collaboration across the sector and why the West Midlands should be leading the charge.

The West Midlands’ ambitious targets to be carbon-neutral by 2041 and deliver a 33% reduction in carbon use across local transport, homes, and businesses by 2026 kicked off the conversation.

David McCallion, director at Willmott Dixon, said:

“We’ve come a long way as an industry when it comes to sustainability, but the biggest challenge we’re currently facing is the balance between sustainability and affordability. Innovation and collaboration are therefore key.
“As an industry, we need to break the cycle by selecting great partners and supply chains and work together without being overly competitive – otherwise it’s all lip service. Behaviour needs to change on both sides of the fence, valuing what everyone can bring to the table in order to innovate. We have some amazing, world-leading companies in the West Midlands and if we put even half of the effort into collaborating as we do into competing we’d make so much more progress as an industry.”

James Breckon, director of estates at the University of Warwick, also picked up on the thread of collaboration, identifying that the industry – and wider region – needs to be less fragmented.

He said:

“In my experience, the best projects are formed when the people around the table are fully aligned. We no longer have the luxury of time to wait for sustainable thinking to catch up – we need to capitalise on the collaborative way of working we’ve already developed, and it would be great to see the West Midlands lead from the front on this.
“There are real parallels with the development of health and safety. The UK is now a leading force so net zero and decarbonisation are what we all need to get on board with.”

The roundtable discussion also turned to the wide variety of targets set by different organisations, local authorities, and governing bodies – and the challenges of meeting so many different deadlines – as well as the importance of funding to get the right support in place.

Marika Lawrence, new projects director at Cordia Blackswan, said:

“In terms of our own operations, we’re reviewing the context so that we can look to set targets going forward; understanding how we work as an organisation, knowing where we want to go and putting an action plan in place of how we’re going to get there.
“We’re also looking into green incentives in relation to development funding – which has the ability to contribute positively in relation to sustainability, not only for the developer but for future occupiers as well.”

Louise Woollen, environment and sustainability manager at West Midlands Police, added:

“We’re heavily reliant on government funding for retrofitting – and it’s a very oversubscribed pot. For new buildings, there has to be a strong business case otherwise it’s very easy to revert back to business as usual – hearts and minds also have to be won for people to think sustainably.”

The event wrapped up with a discussion on momentum and the fact that the sustainability discussion needs to move on from ‘should we consider it?’ to ‘how do we implement it?’. Maggie Hall, head of sustainability at Willmott Dixon, said:

“Everyone accepts that something needs to change – the effects of climate change are now too stark to ignore, especially when the UK's built environment is directly responsible for 25% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.
“However, does this come from the bottom up or the top down? I think the discussion proved we all need to meet in the middle.”

You can hear more from some of our roundtable guests in this short video.

The panel included Belinda Morgan (Cundall), Ed Reynolds (Willmott Dixon), David McCallion (Willmott Dixon), Hannah Kissick (CPW), James Breckon (University of Warwick), Louise Woollen (West Midlands Police), Maggie Hall (Willmott Dixon), Marika Lawrence (Cordia Blackswan), Matt Darby (Gleeds) and Warren Jukes (Associated Architects) and was chaired by Liz Cartwright (Cartwright Communications).

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