Improving quality of life and tackling climate change must go hand in hand in delivering the new homes that the UK needs

Paul King

It might have been a episode from Yes Minister, realistic enough to be plausible, but sufficiently beyond the bounds of realpolitik to be seen by many as bordering on the absurd. When Housing Minister Yvette Cooper spoke to a gathering of the usual house building suspects in the autumn of 2006 and announced that from 2016 all new homes would be ‘Zero Carbon’, the mutterings of officials were audible. “That’s a very brave decision Minister”.

The unbroadcast prequel was equally amusing. A fact-finding mission to Scandinavia - a charabang including an environmental campaigner, the CEO of a major housebuilder, the Chairman of the Home Builders Federation, the Housing Minister and her entourage of officials urging her to remain within the realms of forward-looking but safe regulation - “Lower carbon would be advisable Minister”. But the Housing Minister had a mind of her own - indeed she was becoming well known for it, and decided to play the card that’s so rarely put down, the bold political move. A step change.

And so the builders could do little other than agree that a clearly signposted 10 year regulatory trajectory towards the uncharted territory of homes that would save as much carbon as they produced - through heating, lighting and appliances - was fair enough. Safe in the knowledge that the political grass can grow very long in ten years.

Against the odds then, the momentum towards delivery of this seemingly impossible target grew. Some builders decided it was better to get ahead, and promptly sent their designers back to the drawing board. Others rolled their eyes, decided to stick to greenfield land and make hay while the sun shone, and a few decided that the industry needed to get organised. John Callcutt, the recently retired house builder, devoted a chapter of his government-commissioned report on housing supply to the additional challenge of delivering Zero Carbon homes. He recommended (under the guidance of ghost-writer David Adams) an operational hub that would coordinate the effort to overcome the barriers to delivery, and the Minister duly gave it her blessing.

The Zero Carbon Hub was born in May 2008. Co-funded by industry and government it went on the transform the way in which policy aspiration was translated into practicable regulation and industry action. With a board comprised of private, public and third sector representatives, we grappled with its world-leading remit. It’s task was to help the industry ascend a rather steep Part L staircase, whose higher reaches were still shrouded in cloud like the summit of some mystical and hitherto unconquered mountain summit.

The story of the outputs of the Hub are well documented on its own website (and will remain so for the foreseeable future). The headline summary is that it built on the work initiated by the UK Green Building Council to determine a definition of Zero Carbon that was more or less acceptable to all. It then delved into the translation of a classic energy hierarchy - lean, green and mean - into the development of standards that were technically feasible and broadly acceptable. In the last few years it has focused its efforts on educating and informing the industry, to help laggards as well as leaders to progress.

It is the ‘how’ of the Hub’s story that is every bit as important as the ‘what’. It created an unusually neutral forum within which the full spectrum of views - from idealistically deep green to distinctly murky brown - were heard, considered and weighed against the evidence. It took the surprise out of regulation (mostly), and gave the more proactive parts of the industry the opportunity to test and learn long before they were required to implement higher standards. If you were to make a film about the life of the Hub you would need a cast of thousands - Ministers, officials across numerous departments, and the staff of trade bodies, quangos, campaign groups and companies who have committed money, sweat, tears and come close to drawing blood once or twice too.

The Zero Carbon policy survived countless Housing Ministers and no less than three changes of government, just. While it received a political battering from time to time, it withstood the onslaught as increasingly the house building industry got on with it. Projected costs fell, from eye-watering early estimates north of £30K to figures, to quote a small housebuilder “that could now be lost in the roundings”. Yes, it’s original ambition was diluted - some joked that it had become the Zero Carbon bungalow target when it lost a whole storey made up of unregulated energy (plugged-in appliances), but it continued to stretch a traditionally conservative industry. Some builders even discovered that their innovations in pursuit of Zero Carbon actually saved them money.

Sadly, just short of its eighth birthday, the Zero Carbon Hub has had to shut up shop. The current government decided to drop the target for all new homes to be Zero Carbon (or something close to it) by 2016, and with it the Hub has lost its raison d’etre. It seems ironic that just a few weeks ago the Hub’s stand was one of the most visited at Ecobuild - an estimated 4500 people stopped to gather advice and reports - and other events organised to disseminate information have continued to sell out until the end. The small and dedicated team that staff the Hub should be applauded for their unstinting efforts and outstanding achievements.

There’s undoubtedly a lot of work still to be done. Subject to the outcome of the EU referendum the Nearly Zero Energy Building (NZEB) regulation will need to be enforced in a couple of years’ time. Closer to home, the industry is still learning how to build to higher standards of air-tightness and energy efficiency as well as tackling issues like over-heating and indoor air quality, that are set to become increasingly potent customer concerns. And of course climate change is a challenge that isn’t going away, so it’s only a matter of time before we’ll need to focus on raising our game once again.

While this Government’s priority is understandably increasing housing supply, there is a growing chorus of concern regarding the importance of ensuring that quality goes hand in hand with quantity. Homes are not merely economic instruments, they are places in which we aspire to thrive; healthy, happy places for people to enjoy. Before the Tories formed the previous coalition government, they commissioned what they called their Quality of Life Review. One young Tory, Zac Goldsmith, played a key role in leading that review and now, as mayoral hopeful, he has set out is own stall which includes a zero carbon ambition for all new homes in London. Some say nations talk, cities act; we’ll see.

Improving quality of life and tackling climate change are things that must go hand in hand in delivering the new homes that the UK so urgently needs. Whatever happens at the ballot boxes in May, a reframed Quality Homes Hub could build on the firm foundations of one built during rather different political times. Long live the Hub!

Paul King was Chair of the Zero Carbon Hub Board between May 2008 and March 2016.