Housing sector to implement carbon neutral proposals

03 Aug 2010
Sarah Mansfield

Social housing partner at Berrymans Lace Mawer LLP, Sarah Mansfield, addresses the Government’s plan for new homes to be zero carbon from 2016.

In a written ministerial statement in July 2009, John Healey, Labour Minister for Housing and Planning, confirmed that all new homes will be zero carbon from 2016. This has now been reconfirmed by the current Minister for Housing and Planning, Grant Shapps, and the definition of zero carbon will be based on the following:

  • high levels of energy efficiency in the fabric of the home;
  • a minimum level of carbon reduction to be achieved onsite or through directly connected heat; and
  • a list of allowable solutions for dealing with the remaining emissions (including from appliances).
The key points were compiled following proposals by the Government in its 2008 consultation paper entitled, “Definition of Zero Homes and Non-Domestic Buildings: Consultation”. The consultation followed the Government’s 2007 “Building a Greener Future: Policy Statement in which it announced that all new homes will be zero carbon form 2016.
 
The answers to some zero carbon questions have already been widely communicated, but other areas still require extensive research, such as the building fabric and renewable technologies where concerns with overheating, design and reliability of product performance remain.
 
What does a zero carbon home actually mean?
 
A property can only be zero carbon if fossil fuels are not used for heating and lighting, and if it generates more power than the net carbon emissions associated with the construction and fabric of the building. There are approximately 50 tonnes of CO2 embedded in the construction of a house (www.emptyhomes.com – New Tricks with Old Bricks). To be truly zero carbon, both fuel use and construction impact must be offset.
 
The Zero Carbon Hub was introduced in June 2008 to develop and drive a prioritised programme for the energy efficiency aspects of low carbon homes, leading to the delivery of mainstream zero carbon homes from 2016.  The method was to ensure full communication, engagement and close co-operation with Government, house builders, manufacturers and key industry stake holders. The aim of the Zero Carbon Hub is to facilitate delivery of this programme by considering such items as the building fabric, air leakage from within the home, build cost and householder experience. It will ensure that the tools and processes are workable and the industry can scale up its operation to meet the Governments objective of Zero Carbon Homes by 2016.
 
This commitment outlined by John Healey was tempered by the announcement two weeks later, of Housing Minister Grant Shapps, in which he made clear his intention to cut funding to the Government-backed zero-carbon homes body, Zero Carbon Hub to £600,000. In response, John Alker of the UK Green Building Council said: ‘If support for the Zero Carbon Hub in financial terms were to be phased out, I don’t believe it will be a reflection of the Government’s commitment to the 2016 zero carbon homes target.”
 
Shortly thereafter would follow the clawing back of a £500,000 Communities and Local Government (CLG) contribution to the public private partnership, A CLG spokesperson said: “… the Hub will continue to play a valuable role while the policy is finalised and then, over the years ahead, in preparing industry for its introduction. In an extremely tight fiscal situation, it’s only right that Government takes stock of its funding support to all organisations, to reflect the roles and responsibilities of both itself and industry, and to secure value for money for the public purse.”
 
In addition, there is a call on the social housing investment body Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) to slash its budget by £600 million, which in effect will result in the building of 9,000 less homes, while telling the industry that they must provide more homes for social tenants and reduce existing waiting lists.
 
Defining standards
 
It has now become apparent that despite these positive messages, the Government has failed to deliver on its promise to define the environmental standards that all new homes must meet from 2016, before the parliamentary recess. Housing Minister Grant Shapps announced on 27 July  that he would give developers and councils ‘more flexibility’ to decide how to meet zero carbon standards from 2012, but he avoided giving any detail on what those standards would be.
 
In May, Mr Shapps had promised the housing sector that the Government would publish a definition of zero carbon before parliament broke for the summer. Key sector figures believe ministers will not now be able to publish a definition until November. Without the definition being published, the industry is unable to prepare for this target to ensure that the objective of zero carbon homes is achieved by 2016. Once the detail of the definition is published, the industry can consider practical delivery of these targets to achieve the aims and hopefully, boost confidence in the industry that the UK will achieve its aim by 2016.
 
Mr Shapps this week has however, launched a community energy fund, which will allow developers the right to choose to fund local energy projects, such as wind farms, rather than installing expensive on-site renewables. In turn this will assist local authorities in achieving their own targets of reducing carbon emissions. Mr Shapps confirmed future revisions to the building regulations will include minimum standards for fabric energy efficiency, alongside the Government reconsidering the national benchmark for mitigating carbon emissions on building sites, by using renewable energy. “I will need to be realistic and take account of costs. The Government recognises the challenges posed by the 70 per cent level previously proposed and the case for this needs to be examined,” he said, indicating the lean towards self-regulation in achieving a reduction in carbon emissions.
 
Achieving targets
 
This will enable builders and developers to choose how to achieve carbon emission reduction targets and will allow alternative solutions, other than re-designing or re-building newly built homes. In turn it reflects the Government view of self regulation being key to achieving these targets, as previously demonstrated by the abolition of home information packs (HIPS), which had forced home owners to obtain costly but in many cases, worthless, home energy surveys.
 
In conclusion, targets for  zero carbon by 2016 are in place, but we do not have any definitions to work to. The Government has cut funding directly and indirectly in this field, and at the same time, wants waiting list of social landlords to go down, and wants the private housing sector to provide movement in a stagnant housing market, and assistance with the provision of social housing. The Government has provided no mechanism by which these aims will be achieved, particularly as there is also to be a cut in housing benefit. Presumably the Government wishes the social housing sector and private developers to achieve these aims with little Government assistance and by working together. It is apparent that a large gap is emerging between aspiration of the targets and what will actually be achieved by 2016.

Sarah Mansfield can be contacted at sarah.mansfield@blm-law.com

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Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to customers of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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