The sustainability story behind the headlines

Balfour Beatty’s sustainable director Dr Paul Toyne reveals on Construction Manager why he believes sustainable development needs to be brought back onto the media’s agenda.

As governments go, our own here in the UK is generally better than average at providing the clarity, consistency and confidence for businesses to plan ahead, to provide the goods and services that can help generate prosperity and improves our quality of life.

However, of late a recurring media story has been the coalition government’s pledge to abolish green taxes imposed on households through their energy bills from the “big six” energy companies. The taxes were initially implemented to pay for energy efficiency measures targeted at the needy, to reduce fuel poverty. The government now says removing these taxes will make heating bills more affordable this winter. Critics say it’s government pandering to big business profits, ahead of supporting energy efficiencies measures.

All this against the backdrop of their election pledge “to be the greenest government ever”.

But that isn’t the whole story. In the same week in November as this was rumbling on, Balfour Beatty’s chief executive Andrew McNaughton was at the Treasury Department supporting the launch of the Infrastructure Carbon Review (ICR).

Within the ICR, government and industry talk about reducing capital – and operational – carbon as just good business sense. Why? Because, as their review says, it reduces costs, unlocks innovation and drives better solutions, drives resource efficiency, provides competitive advantage and export potential for UK firms and contributes to climate change mitigation.

Sadly, the ICR did not make headline news and as a result, much of the good work that we do, as part of the community of built environment professionals, did not get the exposure. Instead, many just think sustainable development is slipping off the political agenda.

Whether or not the cynics are right, our public sector clients are not letting it slip, and this is placing more onus on us to demonstrate how we can deliver affordable, sustainable solutions.

So what is my take on it? Well, the facts are clear – we have an increasing population, constraints on resources and a changing climate, all of which is driving our work on operational excellence in our own business and in our supply chain. The reasons listed in the ICR highlight that sustainability is undoubtedly a part of this work, so the solutions to engineer better outcomes for our society are more important than they have ever been. Here is our opportunity!

As I write this, I am less than two months in to my Balfour Beatty career and can see clear tasks and responsibility for me to address in this area. Politicians come and go, but creating a sustainable business that solves today’s problems to safeguard the future is a big responsibility and involves all of us.

So how are we going to organise a global supply chain to deliver the future needs of around nine billion people? That’s the question we have to start answering in 2014.

Dr Paul Toyne is sustainability director of Balfour Beatty. He is also a London Sustainable Development Commissioner for the Mayor of London, chairing its Quality of Life work.


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