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Published On: July 7, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

Sustainable living – making UK homes net zero by 2025

An interview by Lexis Nexis with Debra Wilson, Partner in our Housing department. 

Environment analysis: As part of a series of environmental analyses preceding the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), Lexis Nexis look at the government’s plans to make new homes net zero by 2025. Debra Wilson, partner in our Housing department was recently interviewed by Jessica Virdee and provides comment on government plans, considers if the industry is able to meet the new standards by 2025 and highlights missed opportunities.

Briefly outline what the government plans are to make new homes net zero by 2025

The Conservative manifesto set an ambitious target known as the ‘Ten Point Plan’ on cutting carbon emissions to net zero and adapting to the climate risks facing the UK by 2050. The plan is enshrined in law as part of the net zero emissions target. Essentially, the aim in the context of domestic buildings is to:

  • improve the energy performance of all new homes by focusing on two main aspects of the Building Regulations: Part L (energy) and Part F (ventilation)
  • subjecting existing homes to higher standards where building services are required to replace or refurbish a home

Broadly, to achieve 75–80% less carbon emissions from domestic properties by 2021, and to make homes more resilient to changing climate threats, from global warming to flooding. One of the features, for example, is to aim to install 600,000 air or ground source heat pumps annually by 2028.

Do you think industry is ready to meet new standards by 2025?

In short, no. The technology and knowledge exist to create high quality low carbon, sustainable homes, but the new standards are nowhere near being widely adopted. In 2018, only 1% of completed new build homes were built to EPC Band A.

In theory, the objectives of a green programme sound straightforward. But, in practice, implementation is difficult because delivery requires the industry to fully embrace the concept of what is entailed in building practices at the design stage.

The construction industry consists of diverse disciplines and without appropriate levels of regulatory measures to ensure compliance, there is a risk that the design to deliver an energy efficient home is compromised.

How will existing homes be subject to higher standards?

The primary mechanism for delivering the government’s programme on energy efficiency is the Energy Company Obligation (ECO). This scheme obliges UK’s largest energy suppliers to install energy efficient measures to homes on an individual basis, targeting low income and vulnerable households. Funding grants are available for energy efficiency home improvements to be installed by obligated suppliers with the biggest energy firms all providing ECO support.

In September 2020, the Green Homes Grant was introduced, providing vouchers worth between £5,000–£10,000 to mobilise individuals to make energy efficient changes. This scheme made it a requirement for installers of green products to be accredited in a drive to ensure standards are maintained, but the means of delivery has been criticised for being administratively unworkable for small companies to make a viable business from the grant money. The hurdles in the application and payment stages, has meant a lower than expected take up on the voucher scheme and saw the scheme being effectively scrapped in 2015.

Other initiatives exist, such as tackling fuel poverty through the setting up of the Committee on Fuel Poverty—a non-departmental advisory body set up to monitor and provide the expertise to end fuel poverty. But the measures are piecemeal although naturally making its greatest impact on the households who most need help.

The domestic market, however, consists of such diverse housing both in urban and rural areas. The question, therefore, as to how to subject all existing homes to higher standards of energy efficiency is problematic. Investment, funding, and possible tax incentives are required to capture the wider population of householders. More often depending on the type of property, the difficulty lies in design and incorporating new green efficiency ideas to older existing buildings. Adding a heat pump, for example, to an older property without a wider appraisal of its viability, will not necessarily drive up ‘standards’.

Do you think that the more stringent transitional arrangement will ensure many homes are being built to new efficiency standards?

I am not aware of any ‘stringent’ transitional arrangements, unless it is meant the ones which influence planning decisions. There were transitional arrangements in place so that all developers could be certain about the expected new standards, but those arrangements did not apply to an entire development of new homes, but instead could be applied on an individual case by case basis. I am not confident that left to private initiative, energy efficiency standards will be met.

Building Regulation Part L1 already states the building should facilitate sustainable development:

  • standard and technical specification
  • 19 Building regulations are made for specific purposes, including securing the health, safety, welfare and convenience of people in or about buildings; furthering the conservation of fuel and power; furthering the protection or enhancement of the environment; and facilitating sustainable development

But, without incentives (such as preferential mortgage rates for owners of low carbon homes, or drivers led by government regulation, public engagement is poor.

Missed opportunities?

There are missed opportunities to strengthen enforcement, of not just minimum standards in the building industry, but to encourage proper exercise of industry standards so that they meet manufacturers claims on products, such as insulation or meeting Building Regulations on matters such as air-tightness.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building standards, in response to Grenfell Tower inquiry in 2017, identified deficiencies in the current building regulation in the context of fire regulation. Much of what was said in the review is applicable across the board in relation to the UK’s building regulations. The review highlights the need for better levels of inspection and stricter enforcement of building standards.

There are already examples that I encounter in my working practice of breaches of Building Regulations just to get around the regulations. By way of an example, in meeting Building Regulations on Air Tightness, the view more often taken is that as long as the property can be sealed enough to meet the minimum target of 10m^3/hm^2, industry bodies with major roles to play, such as the National House Builders Council among others, are satisfied that a building meets requirements. Higher than expected energy bills or excessive air flow are of no concern when developers can refer to building regulations having been met. Reducing the Building Regulations to a tick box exercise is harder to counter when in most cases it may go unnoticed.

The missed opportunity is in strengthening accountability for what are often very complex technical issues for which the public must largely put their trust in the builder to deliver an energy efficient home. Most people have a good sense of what it means to have an energy efficient home, but not as to whether, for instance, it is built to Passivhaus standard.

Interviewed by Jessica Virdee

*Disclaimer: The information on the Anthony Gold website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. It is provided without any representations or warranties, express or implied.*

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