Climate Change – The Case for Corah

In 2019, Leicester declared a climate emergency:

“By declaring a Climate Emergency in 2019, the city council has demonstrated its commitment to leading Leicester towards a more sustainable and resilient future. This three-year strategy sets out the initial stages of our journey to become a carbon-neutral and climate-adapted city by 2030 or sooner.”  (Leicester Climate Emergency Strategy 2020-2023)[1]

Part of this Strategy identifies policies for ‘new development’ – rightly accepting responsibility for adopting a ‘carbon neutral standard’ for development on council-owned land, for example. However, in focusing purely on new development, construction materials etc, the Council has missed a significant potential contributor to achieving its ‘carbon neutral’ ambitions: that is, the full lifecycle carbon emissions of buildings.

The built environment is thought to account for between 35-40% of greenhouse gases in the UK. Those arise from the full lifecycle of buildings: construction, operation/use, and ‘end of life’ (e.g. demolition). Many policies seek to address some of those elements: e.g. low carbon materials or material re-use; building regulations governing operational uses. Few policies, however, recognise the real carbon costs of the ‘end of life’ stage: emissions during demolition; and emissions from transporting waste, even if for recycling.

Indeed, evidence from Historic England goes further in demonstrating the climate change benefits from the refurbishment of existing buildings. Its report ‘Understanding Carbon in the Historic Environment’ (2019)[2] is based on the concept of ‘embodied energy’: understanding the sum of all the energy required to extract, process, deliver and install materials in the construction of the building. Its modelling was undertaken on the refurbishment of buildings (a Victorian terrace and former chapel) and assessed against comparable new-build performance of similar footprints and operational activity. In the past, the concept of ‘embodied energy’ has been likened to the equivalent of the power required to drive a mini to the moon!

The findings from the more formal report indicate that it would take 60 years for the new build to be able to account for the carbon benefits derived from the refurbished historic buildings – well past Leicester City Council’s stated target of carbon neutrality as a city by 2030.

This assessment was based on a Victorian terrace and a former chapel. Neither particularly big buildings. Just imagine the scale of embodied energy contained in a structure such as the Corah works: energy that would be simply lost if it were to be demolished. Then add on the carbon emissions from the demolition works, transportation of waste and the recycling processing. And that’s before the carbon emissions of the new development itself are considered: from the material extraction, processing, and bringing to site and to the actual construction itself. Current evidence indicates that the full carbon costs of new builds are often underestimated by at least 30%. In terms of ‘operational’ emissions, even were the new development to be of the highest possible environmental standards, these would still require a minimum of 60 years, potentially, to equate to the carbon benefits from the refurbishment of the existing complex.

If the City is genuinely seeking to be carbon neutral by 2030, use the Corah works as an exemplar for achieving that. The flat roofs of the building would lend themselves to photovoltaic arrays: not only reducing energy costs and increasing attractiveness for occupiers, but also offering the potential for a different business model in using these as ‘assets’ in a commercial arrangement.

Retaining the Corah complex would:

  • Help Leicester City Council achieve its carbon-neutral ambitions.
  • Provide alternative commercial models through energy generation or increased property values (heritage assets have been demonstrated to provide increased values).
  • Offer residents a greater sense of wellbeing – “promoting both societal and individual wellbeing … a sense of rootedness and identity, of place and understanding” (The Heritage Alliance).
  • Preserve a landmark building reflecting Leicester’s rich and diverse industrial heritage.

Its demolition and redevelopment will:

  • Hinder Leicester City Council’s carbon neutral ambitions and is contrary to its adopted strategy.
  • Offers only a simple commercial model for developers with fewer long-term benefits.
  • Reduce the opportunities for residents to experience enhanced societal and individual wellbeing.
  • Remove an important part of the City’s memory.

Conserving our heritage can be good for the planet, good for our civic and personal identity, and if approached properly, good for business.


[1] https://www.leicester.gov.uk/media/kuuojdxw/leicester-climate-emergency-strategy-executive-summary-2020-2023.pdf

[2] https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/understanding-carbon-in-historic-environment/

Climate Change – The Case for Corah