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The majority of government departments and agencies are failing to meet targets to make their new buildings and major refurbishments sustainable, according to a report published today by the National Audit Office. As a result, value for money may be lost from the £3billion which departments and agencies spend each year on this activity.

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A defining feature of a sustainable building is its ability to reduce significantly environmental impacts. This can include measures to reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions; minimise the use of resources such as water; reduce the release of pollutants; maximise the use of reclaimed and recycled materials; and promote sustainable travel choices such as public transport and cycling.

The report found that most departments have started to consider sustainability in construction and refurbishment projects. But departments are not consistently carrying out the required environmental assessments on new projects. In 2005-06 only 35 per cent (37 of 106) of new builds and 18 per cent (61 of 335) of major refurbishment projects had carried out, or planned to carry out, these environmental assessments.

The report also found that, of the projects that did carry out an assessment, the majority failed to meet the required target of ‘excellent’ for new builds and ‘very good’ for refurbishments. Only 38 per cent (14 of 37) of new builds scored ‘excellent’ and 44 per cent (27 of 61) of refurbishment projects scored ‘very good’. For all 2005-06 projects, only nine per cent (41 of 441) achieved the required standards.

The NAO, with the assistance of specialist consultants, examined a sample of projects that had not been assessed. Of these, 80 per cent would have failed to meet the required assessment standards. But the report also identifies some examples of good practice, including the refurbishment of offices by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the refurbishment of the Treasury’s headquarters and Defence Estates’ construction of Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College.

In today’s report, the NAO has identified a number of barriers to progress towards more sustainable buildings on the government estate including:

  • a fragmentation of policy responsibility among government bodies for improving sustainable construction and refurbishment and an absence of a coherent approach to monitoring progress and ensuring compliance;
  • a widespread perception of conflict between sustainability and value for money, partly because project teams are failing to assess the long-term costs and benefits of more sustainable approaches;
  • a lack of sufficient knowledge and expertise in sustainable procurement among those departmental staff responsible for construction and refurbishment; and
  • a failure to specify expected benefits and undertake rigorous post-occupancy reviews to evaluate performance against them, and the consequent lack of robust data to inform business appraisals for new projects.

Among the NAO’s recommendations are that the bodies with central responsibility for sustainability in construction – including Defra, OGC and possibly DTI – should establish a source of expertise available to all departments; promote low cost approaches for use in smaller construction and refurbishment projects; and advise departments on when it is appropriate to undertake environmental assessments of different types, for example on smaller projects or minor refurbishments.

Much remains to be done by individual departments, for example by specifying their requirements for environmental performance in terms of outcomes, including carbon emissions and energy and water consumption; and taking full account of the government’s sustainable operations targets when assessing value for money in business cases and project appraisals.

“When I last reported on construction in 2005, I emphasised the need to consider both the costs and benefits over the whole life of a building, not just the initial capital required. Despite this, today’s report highlights a continuing failure by departments to consider the long-term value of sustainability in their new builds and refurbishments. This is particularly disappointing given the importance of sustainability in promoting a deeper understanding of value for money.

“Government departments and agencies spend in the region of £3 billion each year on new builds and major refurbishments. If sustainability is well handled, and addressed at the very beginning of construction projects, it can and should provide better value for money in the long term.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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