Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice

Building for the future: sustainable construction and
refurbishment on the government estate

Publication of the Committee’s 3rd Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“The government is a long way off meeting its own targets and standards for the sustainability of its buildings. Environmental assessments of new government buildings are supposed to be mandatory but are actually being conducted in only a third of cases. And fewer than a one in ten of such projects can be shown to meet the required environmental standards.

“The picture is not all bad - with a fifth of all new builds examined by the National Audit Office achieving an excellent environmental rating. But departments in general are clearly taking a cavalier approach to the sustainability of their new buildings. It goes without saying that the systems for monitoring compliance with environmental standards are poor and that there is no overall responsibility for making sure that fine words about greener government buildings are translated into action.

“The government should practice what it preaches and set an example for others to follow.

“The message must be driven home that sustainability can and should deliver better value for money over the whole lifetime of a building. I welcome action by the Treasury to simplify the mechanisms for estimating the cost of a building over the whole of its life. It now needs to make sure that departments use them.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 3rd Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Office of Government Commerce and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined the reasons for the limited progress made to date and the prospects for improvement.

Each year government departments and agencies spend in the region of £3 billion on new buildings and major refurbishments. The government has set estate-wide sustainability standards for the construction and refurbishment of its buildings.

Much remains to be done across government to meet these standards. Mandatory environmental assessments were carried out in only 35% of new builds and 18% of major refurbishment projects in 2005-06, and only 9% of projects could be shown to meet the required environmental standards. Departmental uptake of mandatory “Quick Wins”, products pre-assessed to be more sustainable, was limited. Monitoring against estate-wide operational sustainability targets does not set out clearly performance against Quick Wins or sustainability targets for individual projects. Departments did not undertake post-occupancy evaluations, which can be an effective way of identifying improvements, and did not carry out whole life costing which is necessary if the most sustainable option is to be chosen.

Several initiatives are being pursued to encourage the take-up of sustainable options and change the perception of conflict between sustainability and budgetary constraints. Guidance on whole life costing has already been clarified, emphasising that wider benefits form part of that assessment. The development of cross-departmental common contracts, such as the recent “green tariff” contract for energy, offers new opportunities to departments to obtain environmental benefits. There are also plans to improve the Gateway process to take full account of environmental objectives at an earlier stage. The Property Benchmarking Programme, which will collect estate-wide information, is also expected to assist in future performance monitoring.