The government’s Housing Standards Review takes aim at the Code for Sustainable Homes. Our columnist assesses the different options that could replace it

Francis Ho

The government’s Housing Standards Review aims to simplify the framework of building regulations and housing standards in England. One of its recommendations is to wind down the Code for Sustainable Homes. The Code is a rating method for new homes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that enforces sustainability standards above Part L of the Building Regulations (conservation of fuel and power). A final decision is due next year but it is expected that the proposal will be rubber-stamped.

Under the Code, homes are assessed on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 6 (zero carbon) against nine categories including energy and CO2 emissions, water, materials, pollution, management and ecology. Compulsory for publicly funded housing, it is otherwise voluntary but achieving level 3 or 4 under the Code has effectively become mandatory for many housebuilders.

This is because some planning authorities include the requirement within their planning policies. Where not imposed by the local authority, housebuilders may nonetheless promise to achieve a certain Code rating to attract planning permission for a site, particularly if faced with competing bids.

The review concludes that the Code leads to significantly increased development costs, delays for housebuilders and ultimately inhibits economic growth. It suggests that the Building Regulations alone should govern the technical and functional performance of dwellings.

When the government proposed the code, it said that it should be a marketing tool for housebuilders. But it has been poorly promoted

The Code undoubtedly adds to construction cost. Measured against Part L of the Building Regulations, a 2011 cost review found a 0.4% cost increase in attaining level 1 for the average suburban dwelling. The expense rose to 1.9% for level 3, 6.2% for level 4 and a whopping 43.5% for level 6. Furthermore, the Code’s assessors will tell you about local authority bureaucracy, the extensive paperwork and the requirement to report on issues irrelevant to the particular site to get boxes ticked.

But these appear to be reasons for reform rather than abolition. In fact, compliance costs up to level 4 decreased markedly following the narrowing between Building Regulations and the Code requirements in relation to energy and carbon emissions.

So it’s the third motivation given by the review that rings truest. With a shortage of housing, house prices remaining strong and a recovering economy, the government wants to encourage development, in conjunction with its new Help to Buy scheme.

The Code has also failed to register on the public radar. When the government first proposed it eight years ago, it said that it should be a marketing tool for housebuilders and appreciated by homebuyers. The Code has, however, been poorly promoted and few housebuilders’ brochures even mention it.

To replace the Code, the government has three proposals: the first is a non-binding set of national environmental standards that can be applied at local level alongside the Building Regulations. The second approach, and the government’s preference, is identical save that the standards would be integrated into the Building Regulations over time. The final option is to incorporate tiered environmental obligations into the Building Regulations, enforced by Building Control, with different provisions applying in different regions.

A fear is that the changes may undermine green standards for the sake of promoting growth. At the moment, it’s unclear how far the new requirements would extend. Unlike the Code, the Building Regulations do not currently cover materials, management or ecology (although the latter two, together with pollution, carry no credits under the Code). How the transition period would be managed is also a mystery. And any non-compulsory replacement standard must certainly be publicised far better than the Code has been.

As for putting the economy ahead of the environment, businesses can only justify expenditure on voluntary sustainable practices if they reap higher profits or reduce costs. The government could incentivise developers to build more sustainably through tax credits, but such a move is hard to fathom in an era of spending cuts.

Instead, it is for the government to take the long-term view for the public and the environment. Since a new dwelling will endure for substantial time the impact of the materials used and on lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, fuel poverty and occupiers’ comfort will be felt for years after its construction. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

Francis Ho is head of construction at Olswang