Breaking news: Government to legislate on non-zero carbon housing

Parliament debates the Queen’s Speech extensively each year. This time we’re talking for over a week. It is supposed to be a debate on the ‘gracious address’ delivered by the Queen while she balances that weighty crown on her head.

We all know that she is reading out not her own words, but the government’s. What we don’t know (but can sometimes suspect) is what she thinks of the words she is reading out, but we certainly do not debate the notion that some of the words might be more than tendentious and are actually false. That might detract from the formal status of ‘the gracious address’ I guess.

But this year, in the middle of the speech, there was just that – a straightforward falsehood, and here it is. There will be legislation, she said, that: “Will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard.”

I imagine we were expected to react positively to that line. After all, we are going to have to radically renovate the millions of poorly insulated homes that will still be standing in 2050 up to a highly efficient level. So what better than to pass legislation to ensure that the new houses we build are fit for purpose from the word go and will not be subject to another round of retrofitting in the fullness of time?

That is how the proposed legislation is being spun, and indeed the Lib Dems are assiduously claiming credit for the zero carbon homes commitment being there at all; their coalition partners didn’t want it in, but they resisted and won.

All very well, of course, except that since 2007 there has been a mechanism (the Code for Sustainable Homes) which moved house building up through the code levels (1-6) so that, as building regulations were revised, new homes would be ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. This would not have been a prescription for exactly how houses should be built, but a palette of measures, within rules that were the same for everyone.

But since then efforts to dilute and dissipate that process have gathered pace. 2011 saw a new definition of what a ‘zero carbon’ home was, which retreated from a number of measures that had previously been included in the definition. Then there was an examination of what constituted ‘allowable solutions’ to the question of whether all zero carbon qualifying measures had to be attached to the house in question. Could measures be ‘off site’ or even further, could developers do work elsewhere that compensated for the fact that the house to be built was not in itself ‘zero carbon’?

This has resulted in the proposals now being put forward for legislation, which would allow builders to contribute a limited amount of money on a time limited basis to offset the level to which the house would be built: code level four. So this means that new houses marginally above present building regs will be acceptable if some money goes elsewhere. But of course the non-zero carbon home stands long after the money has stopped being provided.

Oh, and by the way, a substantial element of new build from ‘smaller builders’ will be exempted altogether. These new houses will merely be required to keep up with building regs as they are.

What you might conclude from this, then, is that in the future anything like genuinely zero carbon homes will be built only with the goodwill of the builder, and that the whole purpose of the legislation is, otherwise, to drive new build away from zero carbon standards, and permanently so.

And you might conclude that, if changes including the most recent proposals had not been made, we would be in better shape to establish zero carbon home building by 2016 than we are now. In other words no legislation would have been better than this legislation.

But of course it’s still about ‘zero carbon’ homes isn’t it, because that’s what’s in the ‘gracious speech’. So it can’t be simply untrue and facing 180 degrees in the opposite direction from the original intention, can it?

This article was first published in Business Green. 

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