Twenty-five years of sustainability in practice

Paul Ellis

Paul Ellis

Cast your mind back, if you can, to a time before Grand Designs and Kevin McCloud. It was 1992, the year I started working full-time for Ecology Building Society.

These were the early days of the environmental building movement when just a handful of pioneers wanted to pursue their dreams in sustainable architecture and design and we were one of the very few lenders prepared to support them.  

A quarter of a century on, including 22 years as chief executive of Ecology, I marvel at how much progress has been made in public awareness of sustainability, of which back-to-back repeats of Grand Designs are but one small element. 

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Today’s generation of young people - those buying homes for the first time - have a much greater interest in their environmental impact.

They are keenly aware of how their personal capital can be deployed in the economy and the impact it has on wider society. They demand that their financial institutions be positive and responsible. 

Sustainability, for us, has grown to mean so much more than building an energy efficient home. It goes to the heart of what type of country we want our children to grow up in.

When I joined Ecology, we focused on residential-only mortgages. Now we provide finance for a wide range of properties and projects that benefit the environment, sustainable communities and low-impact lifestyles and last year we lent more than £30m. 

In our over-heated capital city this summer, Ecology pioneered an innovative solution to provide mortgages for new homes that will be permanently affordable.

The London Community Land Trust homes are being sold to local residents at a price linked to local earnings. To keep the homes permanently affordable, vendors have to reapply the same formula based on average local incomes. 

This is sustainability in action. Instead of driving families away from their communities and forcing them to commute further and further to their places of work, we are helping to tackle one of the most urgent policy challenges of our times, the supply of affordable homes, in a totally scalable way.

I can see this success being replicated in other cities, towns and rural locations where house price inflation is creating untenable situations. 

In purely practical terms, we would like more advisers to consider Ecology Building Society when dealing with clients seeking to borrow for innovative or unusual projects. This includes those requiring construction methods, materials or flexibility that other lenders won’t consider.

Advisers might also be impressed by both our approach and our speed compared to those lenders and we often hear our borrowers say that they wish they had come to us first.  

Of course, we welcome the growing consumer awareness of sustainability of the last 25 years, but the Government could do a lot more to encourage a corresponding change in the UK financial services industry.