The government’s dropping of zero-carbon home requirements smacks of short-termism

Sarah Richardson

When the government unveiled sweeping policy changes last week in the name of improving the UK’s productivity, under the banner Fixing the Foundations, it was keen to stress these were not run of the mill reforms - they were designed to meet the ambitions of an aspirational society. Nowhere was this clearer than the introduction from chancellor George Osborne and business secretary Sajid Javid, which promised that the reforms would realise the “ambition that our children’s lives will be better than our own”.

Improving the UK’s productivity would, no doubt, improve the fortunes of many of the next generation. And indeed, when it comes to the built environment’s contribution to productivity, there is much sense in the reforms, speeding up planning permissions on brownfield land in particular. But the quiet dropping of key sustainability measures for housing as part of the package means that ironically, at the same time as saying it will improve the lives of future generations, the government is exacerbating the environmental threat those generations already face. In doing so, it will help to leave them with a far more intractable problem than how to improve the productivity of a country.

The dropping of the requirement for zero carbon homes by 2016, and the allowable solutions scheme of offsetting carbon emissions for developments, has been billed as a reduction in red tape which will help housebuilders to address the UK’s housing crisis.
But although some of the housing lobby have welcomed the move, you only have to see that others - including Willmott Dixon - have been among its critics to get the sense that zero carbon homes was not a policy that would have significantly held back housebuilders from building. Rather, the U-turn is an unwarranted coda to a set of more fundamental reforms to the planning process which risks creating damage that far outweighs any increase in building that will result from it.

Faced with a critical shortage of homes, buyers will grab what they can afford before it disappears from their grasp

Those in favour of scrapping the zero carbon homes policy have argued that the market will be sufficient to drive housebuilders to build low carbon homes, because consumers are increasingly aware of both environmental issues and the savings to energy bills that come with more energy efficient housing.

But the idea that this awareness is affecting buyers’ choices on such a scale that it would have a significant and widespread impact on standards is at best unproven, and at worst wilfully naive. Faced with today’s critical shortage of homes, and corresponding price rises, the average buyer will grab what they can afford before it disappears from their grasp. There is little time for debating energy performance when there is a queue of frantic bidders behind you at every viewing.

If consumers are not driving up energy standards, the other place to turn for leadership, in the absence of tougher regulation, is the private sector. There will be some companies which continue to build on the work they have done; there is still enough of a market for sustainable buildings at home and overseas for that. But the experience of those housebuilders and developers that have spent 10 years investing in innovation to meet a standard that has now been scrapped six months before it would have come into force would suggest that it is unlikely that many companies will be anywhere near as keen to do so now. As Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, put it this week, the cancellation of the zero carbon homes policy marks “the end of any benchmark for building the high quality, sustainable homes that we so desperately need”.

And without that benchmark, the real risk is that - when it comes to a housing stock that is sustainable for the future - the foundations are being removed even before they are laid.

Sarah Richardson, editor