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Associate Feature: Scotland’s historic  environment can be the keystone of our green recovery

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Associate Feature: Scotland’s historic environment can be the keystone of our green recovery

The Covid pandemic has profoundly affected all aspects of Scottish society, including our historic environment. As we continue to feel its impacts, and as the cost of living and energy prices spiral, the principles of a green recovery – that put climate action and fairness at the heart of economic recovery – are more urgent than ever. Our historic environment sector has demonstrated its resilience over the past two years, and we believe that it can be the foundation of Scotland’s just-transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy that is fair for all.

While we may think of our historic environment as our iconic visitor attractions and landmarks, it’s also the places we live, work, and relax, as well as the infrastructure like bridges and waterways that keep our country moving. Our built heritage is part of our everyday lives and central to our sense of place, identity, and wellbeing. By making the most of the heritage assets we already have, our historic environment exemplifies the key features of a circular economy that will be crucial to achieving net-zero.

Our historic environment provides us with over 5,000 years of accumulated knowledge and practice of how to live sustainably and use our resources efficiently. We can see how communities of the past used locally sourced materials to build homes that would withstand their environment, such as the Blackhouses on the Isle of Lewis, that were built low into the landscape with rounded corners and thick walls to give protection and insulation against the strong Atlantic winds. Today, we can harness the traditional skills, materials, and construction methods of the past to support our future.

Those principles of making more with less and living locally that governed how our ancestors existed for centuries are just as relevant today as we look to make more sustainable choices for the future. And the best place to start is at home – of the approximately 2.6m dwellings in Scotland, around 20% are traditional buildings. Many of those buildings built before 1919 have a rate of disrepair that directly affects how energy efficient they are. It’s crucial that we address poor building maintenance and provide support to owners of traditional buildings on appropriate retrofit measures, to reduce the energy these homes use and the carbon they emit. HES has launched a new course in Energy Efficiency Measures for Older and Traditional Buildings to ensure the wider construction industry is equipped with the skills needed for the retrofit of Scotland’s existing built environment.

The maintenance and adaptation of these buildings we already have must also be prioritised to make best use of existing embodied carbon, and to minimise the environmental cost of new construction. Nearly 80% of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 already exist today, and those buildings contribute to global warming over their whole lives as we build, use and continue to maintain them. The repair, reuse and retrofit of the existing built environment is a sustainable alternative to building new. Maintaining our historic buildings, and finding sustainable new uses for vacant buildings, supports heritage-led regeneration and helps create resilient communities with a distinct sense of place.

But to achieve this, we need to ensure we have the specialist skills required to maintain and repair our historic buildings to make sure they last. There is currently a shortage of skills in the maintenance and repair sector that it is crucial we address – both to ensure that our historic buildings thrive, and also to support good, green jobs. Traditional skills support the principles of just transition and good environmental practice, providing rewarding work and maximising resource efficiency through the use of traditional materials. For every £1 million directly spent on the repair, maintenance, and improvement of our buildings, 21 full-time equivalent jobs are supported across Scotland – that’s 40% higher than for new builds1. We need an economy that delivers good jobs, fair work, addresses structural inequalities and reduces poverty through better work. By investing in traditional skills training and employment pathways, as well as low-carbon materials and their supply chains, we can enable economic and social resilience at a local level.

The historic environment has a vital contribution to make to sustainable economic recovery across key policy areas. However, one sector cannot achieve this alone. We must work collaboratively to address the causes of climate change and prepare for its impacts, helping to build resilience across all aspects of Scotland’s society and economy.

We must reframe the message that our historic environment supports net-zero and energy efficiency policies. Transforming how our economy functions and how we think about growth and development presents a chance to change that narrative. Seeing our historic environment as the solution, rather than the problem, must be central to Scotland’s green recovery.

Ensuring our built heritage is fit for purpose and meets energy efficiency targets is a key economic, market, and industry opportunity, and one which supports delivery of the National Strategy for Economic Transformation alongside other Scottish Government commitments to achieve a just transition to net-zero and establish a wellbeing economy. By fully realising the potential of our built heritage, we can make Scotland a low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive economy.

1.  FRASER OF ALLANDER INSTITUTE 2021. The Economic,Social and Environmental Benefits of Stimulating Repairs and Improvements to the Scottish Built Environment to Aid a Green Recovery from Covid-19.

This article was sponsored by Historic Environment Scotland.

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