Ministers need to provide clarity rather than broad assurances over regulations and enegy targets

Joey Gardiner

David Cameron’s commitment to lead the “greenest government ever” is the kind of bland promise that politicians love: eye-catching and populist but fuzzy enough for it to be impossible to be called out on. Hence, despite the fears of the industry that through its policies the government might be missing the chance to promote green growth in the UK, the government insists it is still on track to meet Cameron’s pledge.

Specifically Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat secretary of state for energy and climate change, tells Building this week that the coalition “is and will be the greenest government ever” and that he remains “bullish” about promoting green construction growth. This despite the inconvenient facts of the unlawful U-turn over feed-in tariffs, which did so much to damage confidence that the government would provide regulatory stability; the decision not to introduce so-called “consequential improvements” regulations which could have sparked a wave of retrofit work; and the botched delivery of the government’s flagship Green Deal retrofit programme. And - if you are among those that consider nuclear energy to be a green solution - there is also the government’s failure to reach a deal that would allow building to start on the £10bn-14bn Hinkley C nuclear power station.

Davey’s case is that the Green Investment Bank and Green Deal - though the impact of both has so far been limited - do have the potential to massively increase investment in low-carbon construction and refurbishment projects. Likewise, energy market reform has already prompted huge interest in renewable development, and could yet enable the next generation of nuclear power stations to be constructed in the UK.

Regulatory uncertainty is exactly what the industry, just starting to emerge from recession, doesn’t need at the moment

And this week we had further progress - of sorts - though not from Davey’s department. The publication of the proposed changes to Part L of the Building Regulations (which covers energy usage in new buildings) has been greeted with a huge sigh of relief by the housebuilding industry, which desperately needs clarity over the standards it will be expected to build to in the years to come.

Furthermore it contains a welcome emphasis on meeting standards through the basic energy efficiency of the building fabric. Yes, it confirms Building’s revelation last week that implementation of the new standard will be delayed until 2014, but this in itself needn’t be too big a problem. Worrying, though, is the failure of the communities department to publish at the same time two other technical documents that are equally vital to the future of the industry: expected consultations on the housing technical standards review, and the “allowable solutions” element of the 2016 zero carbon standard.

Couple those omissions with the fact this week’s Part L contained a smaller than expected uplift to energy standards, plus the small matter of a general election in 2015, and it is no surprise there are doubts over the whole drive to zero carbon in 2016. Is it possible for a future industry to make the leap from this week’s standard to zero carbon? Will a future government be tempted to water down the 2016 requirements further to avoid mayhem? All of these are very open questions.

As our Green for Growth campaign has made clear, regulatory uncertainty is exactly what the industry, just starting to emerge from recession, doesn’t need at the moment. Indeed, clever regulation could actually drive growth.

All of which means the industry needs more than the broad assurances ministers such as Davey are happy to hand out, however bullish he feels about the future.

Joey Gardiner, assistant editor