In the latest of a series of articles on how local authorities can respond to a climate emergency, Maxim Laithwaite and David Hutton consider the opportunities provided by new housing?
Eighty per cent of our housing stock that will be occupied in 2050 has already been built . However, it is widely accepted that we still need to build more homes to tackle the UK’s housing shortage.
With housing stock accounting for twenty per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, there are many initiatives being considered for housing generally. In particular, there is a focus on setting energy efficiency standards for new housing. As an area that local authorities are increasingly active in delivering, we focus this article on potential changes to Building Regulations; changes which could either help or hinder local authorities to achieve net zero carbon.
Since the announcement of the general election, Labour pledges to build 100,000 new council homes by 2024 and will “introduce a zero-carbon homes standard for all new homes" .
The Liberal Democrats pledge to “require all new homes…to be built to a zero-carbon standard (where as much energy is generated on-site, through renewable sources, as is used), by 2021, rising to a more ambitious (‘Passivhaus’) standard by 2025" .
The Green Party pledges to “empower local authorities to…create a total of 100,000 new homes for social rent (council homes) a year, built to Passivhaus or equivalent standard. This new standard will see these new homes use 90% less energy for space heating than the average home…” 
Under their recent manifesto, the Conservatives pledge to invest “£9.2 billion in energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals” . But before the announcement of the general election, the Government launched the Future Homes Standard  (absent from the manifesto), which included a plan to use Building Regulations to ensure that by 2025 all new homes will produce up to eighty per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than those built to current energy efficiency requirements.
As with many of the climate emergency challenges, much will turn on the result of the general election. If we wake on 13 December to a new government, we will have to see what the successful party will introduce in relation to any efficiency standards under Building Regulations. If, on the other hand, the current Government continues, local authorities can anticipate and prepare to engage with the proposals under the Future Homes Standard consultation.
For example, these proposals include restricting the ability of local planning authorities to set energy efficiency standards higher than those in Building Regulations. The rationale being that it is important to tackle the disparate energy standards across the country, which create inefficiencies and inconsistencies in supply chains, and variable quality of outcomes. That may be seen as a restriction for those councils that already impose higher standards than Building Regulations require.
The consultation was to address options to raise Buildings Regulations standards for Part ‘L’ (conservation of fuel and power), Part 6, and also changes to Part ‘F’ (ventilation) – along with tougher transitional arrangements to encourage faster implementation. It also aims to clarify the role of planning authorities in setting energy efficiency standards.
There are two main options in this consultation:
- A twenty per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the current standard for an average home – to be delivered by high fabric standards (e.g. triple glazing, minimal heat loss from walls, ceilings and roofs)
- A thirty one per cent reduction in emissions – to be delivered mainly by the installation of technology including solar panels and higher fabric standards.
The Government says it prefers option 2, because it would deliver more carbon savings, result in lower bills for the householder and help prepare supply chains for the use of low carbon systems such as the use of heat pumps, which could be used on a unit-by-unit basis or feed a wider district-heating scheme for greater efficiency.
Local government leaders with ambitious emissions reductions strategies have said that many authorities already exceed national standards, and that the Future Homes Standard targets should be a floor, and not a ceiling.
House builders have also raised concerns that - with the Committee on Climate Change recommending that new homes should not be connected to gas from 2025 - alternative efficient heat sources may not be available in time to meet the new standards.
For planning authorities, the proposed changes to Building Regulations will be critical in decision-making and development control. Many authorities feel the need to be led on the issue. But for others who are leading the way, the restrictions proposed could mean that they cannot go far enough.
Subject to the general election, it will be important for local authorities, registered providers and other stakeholders in the housing sector to take part in any future consultation - and to participate in further expected consultations on existing domestic buildings, and new and existing non-domestic buildings.
Three points to think about
- Whatever the result of the elections, what are you doing to impose higher standards on new homes? What legal powers and policy tools would be useful to help achieve net zero in new homes if Future Homes Standards (or equivalent) were to impose a ceiling? For example, should local authorities be free to develop carbon tax levy on certain developments?
- If you are in process of planning/delivering district heat projects, have you considered how changes to Building Regulations will affect key elements of the business case and technical solution including choice of generation technology (e.g. gas-fired CHP)? How can district heat projects be future-proofed to take account of proposed changes?
- How do these standards prompt local authorities into action on existing housing stock?