Government improves approach to energy standards for new homes ...

... but plenty of work still to do

20 January 2021

Some big battles have been won in the campaign to make the government's Future Homes Standard – which looks at changes to building standards for new homes – adequate to the challenge presented by the climate crisis. Weaknesses remain, but the changes that the government has made following public consultation in which CSE engaged strongly are nonetheless welcome.

The government originally published its proposals in February 2020. These included:

  1. Reducing carbon emissions from new homes by at least 75% with tightened interim standards requiring a 20% or 31% reduction in carbon emissions from 2020.
  2. Banning the installation of gas central heating in new homes from 2025.

At the time, CSE, the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) and others raised significant concerns that the consultation proposals went neither far enough nor fast enough, particularly considering that originally all homes were to be zero carbon from 2016. You can read our response here.

Uppermost in our concerns were:

  • The proposed removal of councils’ discretion to set higher standards than Building Regulations require. Building Regulations should act as a policy floor, not a ceiling on ambition, and the many planning authorities that already have or are in the process of developing binding requirements for new development to be net zero carbon should be allowed to keep them. 
  • The requirement for a 75-80% reduction in carbon emissions from new homes. This is not ambitious enough; building to lesser standards is likely to result in the need for costly retrofitting of buildings at a later date to meet required emissions reductions targets.
  • The proposed removal of fabric efficiency standards. This would allow developers to construct new homes that are less well insulated than those built from 2013-20 - a retrograde step. 
  • Allowing developers to fit direct electric heating. Another retrograde step as these systems are more expensive to run than alternative heating options like heat pumps or district heating networks.

The majority of respondents shared our view that the revised standards were too weak, and such was the outcry, that over 3,000 responses were received – that's a lot for technical consultation.

Yesterday (19 January) the government published its response to the Future Homes Standard consultation and some welcoming shifts towards better policy are in evidence.

"The government’s response represents a partial success" says CSE's Dan Stone. "It appears that local planning authorities are to retain the right to set higher standards than the building regulations. This is absolutely vital, as many councils are aiming to achieve net zero carbon emission within their areas ahead of the national 2050 commitment. But I say "appears" because the government are also suggesting that they will have more to say about this in due course, so we'll be keeping an eye on developments."

Other reasons to take satisfaction include:

  • Minimum fabric energy efficiency standards are to be retained. This will help ensure heating bills are kept low, reduce demands on the electricity distribution network and the need for more expensive retrofitting in the future.
  • Heat pumps and to a lesser extent district heating networks will become the primary heating technologies for new homes. However no technologies would be mandated or banned outright, and whilst we welcome the acknowledgement that heat networks are the only way we can exploit renewable and recovered-heat sources, local planning authorities should be allowed to require that where such resources exist, they must be used.
  • Interim regulations are to be brought in in 2021 requiring a 31% reduction in carbon emissions compared to current standards.

The remaining sticking point is that the regulations to be introduced in 2025 will still only require a 75-80% reduction in carbon emissions, relying on the decarbonisation of the electricity grid to get to net zero carbon emissions. Increased minimum standards are welcome, particularly if councils can go further; but even now a 75-80% reduction in carbon emissions doesn’t seem ambitious enough, and will seem even less so by 2025.

In the short to medium term, the consultation response provides the reassurance local planning authorities need to continue developing ambitious climate-proofed plans and policies. This is critical as planning policies being prepared now will partly deterimine if we are to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and, indeed, whether planning is part of the solution to the climate crisis, or continues to be part of the problem.

There are three other developments in the planning sector that we also wish to see:

  1. Clarity that the reformed planning system will be able to build zero-carbon, climate adapted places, (see our response to the planning white paper).
  2. That the planning reforms take forward and embed the government’s excellent agenda on decarbonising transport – the two seem entirely separate at present.
  3. A major reform of the permitted development rights system – where an ever increasing proportion of buildings can be converted into homes without planning permission – to ensure that these homes are also zero carbon, climate adapted and built to acceptable minimum standards in accessible locations.

"The revised building regulations will be an improved (though not perfect) regulatory floor, significantly reducing emissions from new homes," said Dan. "The more positive noise coming from Westminster is welcome, but the government has to sustain that in their proposals for the planning system so that these new standards and a refreshed planning system are fully aligned to the path to net zero."

Photo © Gerald England (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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