New legislation will give the government the power to force housebuilders to build more sustainable homes. The policy makers must take full advantage and start updating building regulations immediately, says WWF sustainable homes policy officer Jo Wheeler

It’s been a very busy period for those with an interest in building sustainable homes. First the WWF supported Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill passed safely through its third reading in the House of Lords. The Bill should now receive Royal Assent after the summer recess and pass into law in autumn 2004.

Next followed the release of new research commissioned by WWF, CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and the Halifax, showing that a whopping 87% of people want environmentally friendly homes. Indeed, the research also found that 84% of people would be prepared to pay an average of 2% extra on the purchase price for environmentally friendly homes, although previous WWF research has shown that huge environmental savings can be achieved for far less. The homebuyers who took part in the survey demonstrated high levels of interest in environmental features such as energy and water efficiency, use of environmentally friendly, low allergy materials, and renewable energy.

Then came the eagerly awaited Government response to the Sustainable Buildings Task Group (SBTG) report, Better Buildings, Better Lives. The Government has broadly welcomed the report’s recommendations and has promised to start work as soon as possible to develop the proposed Code for Sustainable Buildings, based on the BRE BREEAM/EcoHomes standard, with a first draft ready in time for its Sustainable Communities Summit next January.

So, after this flurry of activity, what needs to happen next?

Well, starting with the Bill, WWF is delighted that it will become law as we have been working closely with Andrew Stunell MP, the Bill’s sponsor, to ensure its smooth passage through Parliament. This autumn, for the first time, the ODPM will be able to use building regulations to insist on more sustainable buildings. The government must seize this opportunity and start work immediately on proposals to update the regulations in the light of sustainable development, by undertaking a full audit of the current gaps and the opportunities for change. It is also essential that government undertakes a fundamental review of enforcement measures.

The level of interest in environmental issues shown in the consumer research has clearly highlighted the severe lack of adequate information available to homebuyers about the quality and environmental impacts of their homes. Unfortunately, throughout the current debate on the need for new homes and communities, the government and the housebuilding industry seem to have forgotten to ask the most important people, those who will actually live in these homes, what they want.

To address this, government must ensure that the proposed Home Information Pack includes information about the environmental performance of homes, an issue clearly of interest to prospective homebuyers, and introduce fiscal incentives such as rebates in stamp duty for sustainable homes. The housebuilding industry must stop resisting proposals to improve building regulations and start listening to its customers to ensure it provides the products they want: homes that are great to live in, which benefit their pocket, and that are better for the planet.

Finally, WWF welcomes the fact that government has taken the recommendations of the SBTG report seriously. Now it is vital they act to maintain momentum, establishing a broad based, cost-effective and stretching Code for Sustainable Buildings as soon as possible.

So at the end of a busy week, the goal of WWF’s One Million Sustainable Homes campaign to bring sustainable homes from the fringes to the mainstream of UK housing seems a few steps closer. WWF has seen a major shift in the attitude of house builders, investors and consumers since it began its campaign two years ago. If Government is to realise its vision of sustainable communities, it must now send a clear signal about what house building standards it expects, and the industry must deliver the products its customers want, homes that are affordable for people and the planet.

Jo Wheeler is a WWF sustainable homes policy officer