Ruth Kelly explains how she plans to meet the environmental challenge by awarding stars to sustainable homes

Climate change is our greatest global challenge. As the Stern Review made clear, inaction is not an option. The homes we live in today are making a significant contribution to climate change.

In 2004, more than a quarter of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions came from energy use in the home.

We also have a range of other impacts on the environment through how we construct and use our homes, for example, using water inefficiently, using polluting materials to build our homes and generating tonnes of waste.

Our increasing number of households has outstripped our rate of homebuilding. In response to this, we have recently set out reforms to the planning system through Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) which will help local authorities deliver more and better homes. As a result, in 2050 one-third of the housing stock will have been built after 2006.

I want to make sure these homes conform to the highest environmental standards, and that they drive the development of new markets for environmental technologies.

The code

In December 2006 we launched the Code for Sustainable Homes – a set of national standards for the sustainable design and construction of new homes. Homes assessed against the code – which includes criteria such as energy efficiency, water efficiency and use of sustainable materials – will be awarded a “star rating” as evidence of their performance.

The code builds on the EcoHomes initiative, with some important differences, including new minimum standards for areas such as energy and water efficiency.

It provides us with a road map towards zero carbon homes, signalling the future direction of the Building Regulations in relation to energy use in the home, and enabling homebuilders to plan ahead. The standards, which today are seen as exemplary, will be normal for the homebuilding industry in the future.

We are witnessing a cultural shift in environmental awareness among consumers. It has become the norm to recycle. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed that only 1% of people do not believe that climate change is taking place. People are starting to look for ways to reduce or offset their carbon footprint, and are aware of the financial savings they can make. The code provides information that enables consumers to do this.

The standards which today are seen as exemplar will be normal for the homebuilding industry in the future

It will complement Energy Performance Certificates, to be introduced in 2007, which will put environmental information at the heart of the home buying process and offer homebuilders a way to respond to consumer demand. The star rating will offer a means to demonstrate sustainability performance.

Part of a package of measures

The Code for Sustainable Homes cannot work alone. The climate change bill will put our plan to cut emissions 60% by 2050 into legislation. I have been asking what role the Department for Communities and Local Government should play in meeting this, and what role the powerful tools we have – including Building Regulations and the planning system – should take.

In December we started consulting on a timetable for progressively tightening the Building Regulations so that we reach zero carbon for new homes by 2016. We are proposing step changes, with a 25% energy and carbon performance improvement in 2010 (code level 3), and a 44% energy and carbon performance improvement in 2013 (code level 4). These will achieve a dramatic shift within a decade.

The Code for Sustainable Homes is one of three steps we are taking to support the shift. The second is the announcement by the chancellor in his pre-Budget report that the government will introduce a stamp duty exemption in 2007 for most new zero carbon homes.

The third is the consultation on a new PPS on climate change, which will set out how the planning system should help shape places that produce lower carbon emissions.

We will work with our agencies – the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships in particular – to drive innovation. All future homes funded by the Housing Corporation or built on English Partnerships land will comply with level 3 of the code as a minimum.

In the near future, we will look at the measures we can take to reduce carbon emissions from the existing housing stock, and we will examine the case for further action in the non-residential sector.

So, the Code for Sustainable Homes is a big step forward. By building homes to a higher standard of sustainability we can reduce the threat of climate change, and be better able to cope with the effects that are already inevitable. We can provide future generations with a resource-efficient and high quality housing stock, reducing our environmental footprints, and improving quality of life.