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Zero Carbon Housing Kicked to the Curb

Last week, the Government released a paper entitled ‘Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation’ in which the zero carbon buildings policy, first announced by Labour in 2006, was unceremoniously scrapped.

17th July 2015    |     Chris Evans: Deputy Managing Director, Rolton Group

The 2006 legislation had introduced a target stipulating that all new homes should be carbon neutral by 2016, with a ten year lead-in time to allow developers to adapt to the new requirements. As we edged closer to the date, however, it became clear that this goal was going to be missed and it appears that, rather than face the embarrassment of admitting failure, the powers that be simply abolished the pledge, citing expense and over-regulation as the justification.

That’s all very well until we look to the much-covered story of Britain’s first “energy positive” house, which opened this week in Wales and will generate significantly more power over the course of a year than it consumes. The three-bedroom residence was specifically designed and built to meet the zero carbon legislation at a total cost of circa £125,000, and the team responsible for its construction have stated that if you were to roll out the house type across a number of dwellings, this figure could drop below £100,000. Whilst schemes such as this certainly have a way to go before reaching commercial parity with traditional builds, they do support the argument for integration of sustainable design and construction within reasonable cost to house builders, and could have been used as a blueprint for future developments had the policy been retained.

Perhaps a more likely motivation for Osborne’s legislative cull as a matter of such expedience is the housing crisis that Britain currently faces. For many reasons, including the rise of single occupancy and extended life expectancy, we need to build additional houses just to maintain the status quo, and that’s before you address the extra capacity required to accommodate our growing population. By removing the ‘green tape’ around house construction, including the Code for Sustainable Homes, and allowing standards around carbon reduction to slip, the process can undoubtedly be sped up and new, less efficient houses can spring up more quickly.

It is true that constructing a totally zero carbon house with all emissions neutralised on-site is challenging at best and almost impossible at worst, but with the option to offset emissions there were principles in the outgoing legislation that played a crucial part in future-proofing not just new homes but also our existing stock. The Climate Change Act 2008 states that we need to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from our building stock by 2050 from the 1990 baseline, and if this legislation is removed with nothing to replace it, we will not only be avoiding the elephant in the room of our desperate need to retrofit existing homes with energy efficiency measures but we will also be building additional homes to a lower standard, which will exacerbate the binding carbon targets already set, leaving ourselves with a greater mountain to climb in later decades and leaving new home owners with higher energy bills in future.

Businesses across many industries have spent considerable sums of money training their professionals to deliver to the new specifications and modifying designs to bring them up to the ever higher standard. This, in combination with the various supply industries upping their game to meet these on-going improvements, is not helped by governmental backpedalling after almost ten full years of adaptation, which is simply short-sighted and damaging to industry trust; how is the industry to know that the policies they count on today won’t be similarly dismantled in the months and years to come? There is no doubt that we need to accelerate our house building rates, but it is vital that the sound principles included in zero carbon legislation are not forgotten as we do so and holistic solutions encompassing generation are developed. I cannot see the same backpedalling by the government on ever more stringent targets for automotive manufacturers, so why this tact on domestic and non-residential new build?

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