English parliament at war over zero carbon homes

The Larch zero carbon house by bere:architects
The Larch zero carbon house by bere:architects

A debate over zero carbon homes is raging in the UK, where the policy is a victim of government attempts to solve both the housing crisis and the national budget deficit.

On Tuesday 3 May, the House of Commons overturned a House of Lords vote in favour of bringing back a policy that all new homes built in England should be “zero carbon”.

As part of an attack on green regulations, the Conservative Government had attempted to roll back this policy, which had been put in place by the Labour government as long ago as 2006.

House builders across the country had been preparing for the introduction of the policy ever since.

Under the scheme, house builders would be allowed to use so-called Allowable Solutions, a term referring to an approved list of carbon offsetting measures, which would help any building project meet the zero carbon standard, even if it was not cost-effective to do so with on-site measures. Achieving the zero carbon standard would require an abatement of 100 per cent of carbon emissions covered by UK Building Regulations.

The original policy had enjoyed cross-party support for eight years, and countless person-hours and many millions of pounds had been expended by government and industry to try to ensure that new domestic and non-domestic buildings would achieve the zero carbon standard in 2016 (later amended to 2018) and 2019 respectively.

The attack on the policy has led to the closure of the Zero Carbon Hub, which has done valuable work for the last eight years in increasing understanding of what zero carbon building means.

At the time of cancellation of the policy in July 2015, Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, commented: “Let us be in no doubt this announcement is the death knell for zero carbon homes,” calling the move “shortsighted”.

“Britain needs more housing but there is no justification for building homes with a permanent legacy of high energy bills,” she said.

“The government has not consulted the house building industry sufficiently on this sudden announcement. This arbitrary and regressive action was not mandated by the Conservative Party manifesto.”

The cancellation was criticised in a letter to the government signed by 13 prominent planning, building, architectural and environmental bodies.

Amongst the housebuilders affected were Stewart Milne, who had invested £1 million (AU$1.97 million), and Willmott Dixon, whose managing director of energy services, Rob Lambe, said at the time: “This announcement seriously undermines industry confidence in government policy and will diminish future investment.”

Britain’s housing crisis

The issue of zero carbon homes has been conflated with the housing crisis and the cost of housing, which actually has a different cause and a different effect and which, because it is short term compared climate change, seems to MPs to have higher priority.

One-and-a-half years ago the Confederation of British Industry stated that 240,000 properties needed to be built each year to meet the national need, but only 200,000 had been built each year on average since the year 2000.

Hopes for the policy were raised when last October the House of Lords Committee on National Policy on the Built Environment said it disagreed with the decision, and the decision to remove the Code for Sustainable Homes, on the grounds of cutting energy bills and tackling climate change.

Then, the previous week, when considering the Housing and Planning Bill – which contains the abolition clause – they added an amendment to reverse the removal, stipulating “that all new homes in England built from 1 April 2018 achieve the carbon compliance standard”. The amendment was approved by 48 votes.

Julie Hirigoyen welcomed the about turn.

“During the 10 years prior to July 2015, the leading players spanning the housebuilding industry – developers, product manufacturers, contractors and engineers – got behind zero carbon homes, investing heavily and innovating to make it a reality. The unexpected and unwanted scrapping of the policy made a mockery of the government’s green credentials, and demonstrated complete disdain for the quality of the nation’s new homes and the industry’s investment.

“Having supported the Paris climate agreement with much fanfare, cutting carbon from new homes and buildings will be vital to achieving our commitments. Reintroducing the zero carbon homes standard would be a clear next step on this journey, and would provide the certainty the industry needs to continue investing in new skills and technologies.”

Peers also backed a proposal made by Labour peer Baroness Royall requiring local authorities to force housing developers to make affordable housing available in developments in certain rural areas when they contain ten or less units.

But this was immediately slammed by the building industry. The Federation of Master Builders’ Chief Executive Brian Berry complained that it would have a negative impact on jobs: “Unfortunately, this is only one of a series of amendments backed by the Lords which show a reckless lack of realism and concern for consequences of heavy-handed regulation. The disinterring of a zero carbon standard flies in the face of the fact that further carbon reduction on site will be difficult-to-impossible to achieve, so will likely amount to no more than a tax to enable off-site carbon mitigation.

“There’s little doubt that the historically unprecedented demands now being placed on small developers are a major barrier. To our members, this amendment will appear little more than a direct attack on SME house builders.”

The FMB fights for building companies. But these companies are accused of perpetuating the housing crisis – indeed profiting from it – by targeting the wealthy in an attempt to maximise profit.

Double-U turn

The government is now busying reversing the 13 amendments added by the Lords. Under the British system a Bill may go back and forth between the Houses of Commons and Lords (“ping pong”) until both houses reach agreement and it becomes an Act of Parliament.

On Tuesday, MPs voted by 121 votes against the pro-zero carbon homes amendment and their reasons for doing so have now gone back to the House of Lords for further consideration. In the debate, housing minister Brandan Lewis accused Peers of wanting to wreck the bill.

Lewis backed the Federation of Master Builders’ attitude towards the zero carbon stipulation, that it “threatened to perpetuate the housing crisis”, to which Labour MP Roberta Blackman-Woods said the evidence contradicts this allegation because it reduces energy costs, delivers on climate change commitments and, because of all the development work done in the last nine years, would only add £1500 (AU$2948) to the cost of a house, “not the £3500 [AU$6879] the minister mentioned”.

Given all the flooding recently seen in the UK she also criticised the government’s move to vote against an amendment that would require one million new homes to be given sustainable drainage systems, which would protect against flooding as well as delivering wider environmental benefits.

“Almost every environmental organisation and organisation concerned with flooding supports the amendment,” she said.

This argument cut little ice in the end.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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