Brian Berry: Ministers must be realistic over house energy efficiency

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THE Government has announced its outline plans for the next step on the road to requiring all new homes to be “zero carbon” by 2016. Although this is a technical development, it is one that will have a big impact not only on the housing market but also the comfort of the homes we will be living in for years to come. It is therefore important, I believe, that the implications of this decision are more widely understood.

The ambitious target of building all new homes to a zero carbon standard by 2016 was a goal set by the then Labour government in 2006, and reaffirmed by the coalition Government when David Cameron took office.

Given the accepted need to cut carbon emissions and the economic good sense of better energy efficiency, the ambition itself is the right one and the desire to act quickly is understandable. Yet sometimes when government policy is too ambitious, it runs ahead of reality and the ability of those on the ground to deliver it. This is where the house building industry now finds itself.

The energy efficiency standards which all new homes are expected to meet are governed by Part L of the Building Regulations. Among other things, this sets a limit on the CO2 emissions rate to be expected from all new homes; this limit has been successively tightened by changes to regulations in 2006 and 2010. This CO2 target can be met by improvements to the fabric of the building itself – the walls and the roof for example, or through on-site low carbon technologies like solar panels.

However, the next uplift in standards, to come into force in April 2014, is slightly more complex still, involving a further six per cent reduction in the CO2 limit and a fabric energy efficiency standard which all new buildings must meet. The fabric standard will mean that all new buildings will need to meet a maximum energy demand for heating per square meeting. This will be slightly different for different building types, reflecting the fact that different types of building have different levels of energy requirements.

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) represents nearly 10,000 small and medium-sized building companies, including a significant number of small, local house builders. These are firms who, depending on the company, might build anything from three to 100 houses a year.

The number of these smaller, local house builders has shrunk dramatically over the last two decades and this trend has quickened over the course of a long recession. This has had a real impact on both the number of new homes and the choice of new homes which the industry is now delivering.

These new standards will have cost implications and the FMB’s surveys of small house-builders suggest that the extra costs for smaller developments will be significantly above those estimated by the Government in its impact assessment. Plus, there will be a double whammy here as smaller builders will be building to these new standards immediately, unlike large volume house builders who will have large banks of land, on which large numbers of schemes will have been registered with building control before the introduction of the new regulations. It’s for this reason that, strange as it may seem, only a small proportion of the homes built since the last uplift in standards in 2010 have actually been built to those standards. This is a critical because we still have too little evidence of how the current standards work on which to base a further uplift in standards.

For instance, we still know far too little about how the current energy efficiency standard interacts with ventilation standards. This leads to real practical concerns about overheating, indoor air quality and the effect of these on the health of residents. The last thing we want to be doing is building a new generation of houses which will be lying empty and impossible to sell in 15 years time.

I remember earlier this year the FMB commented on the development of the York Local Plan. We welcomed the fact that the council was prepared to be flexible over the obligations it placed on house builders and work with them to make sure that more homes got built in the right locations.

The Government now needs to show the same practical realism on energy efficiency. It is increasingly clear that another sharp uplift in standards in 2016 to hit the zero carbon target is not achievable without a devastating impact on the housing market. Ministers must now work with the industry to devise a more realistic timetable while refocusing funding and attention on improving the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock, which will still make up 85 per cent of all our homes in 2050, in order to drive real cuts in carbon emissions and fuel bills.