The construction industry needs to demonstrate a change in culture if it is to be fully prepared to deliver on the government’s promise of going zero carbon on all new homes by 2016, says Andrew Stunell
Last week’s Queen’s Speech has put it beyond doubt: new homes in England really will have to be zero carbon from 2016 onwards. With a five-year gestation period it must be one of the longest pregnancies ever known.
Now we know it’s real. So the industry can get down to serious planning to deliver better quality homes, with lower running costs, that will save lives and cut carbon emissions.
That starts with overall design through to basics like junction detailing and service cut-outs. Is the way ahead simply more of the same only better, or is this the step-change that makes a new approach worthwhile? Does this finally tilt the balance towards more manufacture off-site? It is obvious new skills are needed if on-site renewables are to become as routine as electric lighting, but further back up the supply chain those renewable packages themselves need to be re-engineered for a mass-market, too. It isn’t only new skills that are needed, but a new culture - one that takes joint-sealing and air-tightness as seriously as fire door rebates and functional MCBs. The industry knows that despite progress in the last decade, the quality of supervision, the rigour of testing, and the level of compliance all need a major uplift, or the gap between aspiration and reality on site will widen further.
It isn’t only new skills that are needed, but a new culture - one that takes joint-sealing and air-tightness as seriously as MCBs
Given that we’ve long known all about the preparatory work needed to deliver zero carbon homes, the real mystery is why it took so long to get a firm announcement into a Queen’s Speech, when it had been coalition policy from day one. It wasn’t for want of determination to press ahead by a succession of Lib Dem ministers with this portfolio in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and it is very much to Stephen Williams’ credit that he’s at last delivered where some of us failed. But it did have a lot to do with the blinkered view of the treasury that zero carbon was a zero sum game - you can have more houses or better houses, but the market can’t deliver both. And seeing we all agree not enough homes are being built, they didn’t want to risk cutting supply by improving standards.
There’s so much wrong with that it is hard to know where to start. Maybe by pointing out that if numbers are what you want, cardboard boxes are the way to go. Or that there is no visible correlation between steps up in building standards and housing output over the last 50 years. Not to mention that every estimate of how much each upgrade would add to the cost of a home has proved pessimistic, usually by a factor of three.
Given that we’ve known all about the work needed to deliver zero carbon homes, the real mystery is why it took so long to get a firm announcement into a Queen’s Speech
Not that the construction industry is without fault here, too. Despite the heroic advocacy of the Green Building Council, the pioneering work of some of the best housing developers and the social housing sector in general, the biggest players have repeatedly stepped in to suck their teeth and ask for delays and reviews. And they often have the ear of the treasury.
So in the end it’s all going to be unnecessarily more rushed and painful than it needed to be. But I don’t think the lessons have been learned. How else would a hare-brained scheme to water down building standards in the meantime have found its way into a separate government bill? Clause 29 of the Deregulation Bill proposes to abolish local authorities’ powers to set higher environmental standards for housing in 2015, before the zero carbon measure comes into force. Good intentions to simplify standards nationally are getting in the way of common sense. Those local powers may well be redundant in 2016, but they are doing a good job now in many areas, and should be left to quietly wither as the higher zero carbon rules kick in, not abruptly cut a year in advance. Let’s hope sense prevails - if not in Whitehall, then in Westminster as the bill finishes its passage.
It’s taken hard work and pain, but this zero carbon decision builds on the increase in standards since 2010 to cut the 27% of carbon emissions coming from our housing stock, and delivers on that “greenest government ever” pledge.
Andrew Stunell is Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove and a former minister with responsibility for Building Regulations