The government is to change Part L of the Building Regulations to make buildings more energy efficient. The way it has done this has driven an angry industry to talk about a conspiracy against it. What’s the DETR playing at?
The first chapter in the quest to achieve more energy-efficient buildings has finally closed. This month, the government is expected to issue the first draft of the first stage of the revision to Part L of the Building Regulations.

The changes under discussion will have a huge impact on the way buildings are constructed and materials chosen. Draft proposals obtained by Building show that – as expected – walls, floors, roofs and windows will all have to be better insulated. For example, walls will have to be 20% more thermally efficient. But the review promises to go further than this. Fabric airtightness, the possibility of retrospective application and the introduction of daylight requirements are just some of the amendments being considered.

Whatever the industry thinks about the changes, what is creating real anger is the DETR’s apparent inability to decide on a timetable for bringing in the new rules, the lack of information available on what the requirements will be and the way the industry is being consulted.

It all started so well. In February 1998, construction minister Nick Raynsford announced the start of the comprehensive review of Part L. Its aim was to establish the maximum contribution that buildings could make to the government’s target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and thereby slow global warming.

The plan was to introduce the new rules in three stages. The content of the later ones is unclear, but the first, to be introduced in April 2001 and ratified the following October, will include upgraded insulation standards. Stage two is expected to be introduced 18 months later for approval in 2003, and stage three is not expected until 2005 at the earliest. This last tranche is likely to be the most radical, possibly making the rules apply retrospectively (which would require primary legislation), but the DETR is now talking of putting this back to nearer 2010.

The department’s officials duly set to work on the consultation process with the aim of sorting out stage one and giving some indication as to what would be in stage two. They drew up a discussion document and held workshops to canvass the views of key industry players. They looked at all types of buildings and all possible technical advances.

The result was “an exemplary consultation exercise”, says Andrew Warren, director for the Association of the Conservation of Energy, an insulation manufacturers’ trade association. “It involved a lot of people; it was a model for how government should do things.”

When the DETR had digested the results of this exercise, it was to circulate a draft of the changes to interested parties, such as industry working groups, giving them six months to add comments. After that, the government would issue the actual amendments to the regulations.

The timetable slips

However, the DETR seems to be finding it difficult to produce a draft. “We were supposed to have the consultation document out in autumn last year, but the timetable has slipped abominably,” says Warren. Cliff Fudge of block manufacturer Celcon agrees. “The whole idea of a consultation paper is that it should be seen.”

Warren is angry because members of his association have already invested heavily in new manufacturing facilities to meet the schedule put forward by government. “I’ve had ministers endlessly come up to me and say ‘You will have the investment in place so we won’t have shortages or have to rely on imports?’ ” says Warren. “Real people, real companies have made a real investment on the basis of this, and those investments are not able to be operated in full simply because we are still waiting for the consultation exercise on Part L.” And, of course, even when it does come out, there “will still be a long way to go”.

What the fighting is all about

Although the changes to be put forward in stage one will have a big effect, they are simple. “The first batch of changes will require no great research, but will yield high CO2 reductions,” said one manufacturer involved in an industry working group looking at the changes.

The problem has arisen in agreeing what the consultation document will say about stage two. This seems to have got trapped in a paradox, with the government unable to bring forward proposals until it knew the industry could meet them, and the industry unable to say whether it could meet them until they were brought forward.

The way out of this impasse for the detailed consultation over the next two stages is through specialist working panels drawn from the whole of the construction industry. Six of these have been formed, although according to a member, “only one has actually been met”.

They cover areas such as total construction costs and benefits, robust standard details, building services for dwellings, air-conditioning, commissioning and technical standards for the building envelope. These groups will report on the consultation document for stage one and identify the best way of ensuring the industry’s input to the detailed debates on stages two and three. One panel member said the government was putting pressure on the panels to meet before it formally launches the draft for stage one “just so they can say work is already under way on the second stage”.

This seems likely to be as, or more, frustrating than the consultations leading up to stage one, with industry members already resentful about their perceived lack of influence and suspecting an hidden agenda in the way the DETR is managing the policy-making process.

“The government says it is involving industry, but it is not taking any notice of what industry is saying – it’s got its own political agenda,” said one member of the working group. “The government is cherry-picking the figures it wants from a broad spectrum of responses,” he added.

The same member also raised concern that the panels are working in isolation and are not party to the bigger picture. “I believe the industry action groups were meant to be confused. The government is not giving out all the information, only a bit at a time, to create confusion,” he says.

Finally, the practicality of the timescale for the change is also being questioned. The increased insulation values could mean big changes in the way houses are built. Given the time taken to achieve planning approval and start construction, “housebuilders could potentially be working to four different sets of Building Regulations”, said one blockwork manufacturer.

To meet the new energy regulations, housebuilders may have to change from block construction to timber frame for walls. Dave Baker, technical director at the House Builders’ Federation, says: “Just let us build with a material we know and understand. Timber is such a small section of the current market.”

Baker is, however, keen to see the energy regulations applied retrospectively. “We want to see some action on pre-1980s housing,” he says. But, as you may have expected, it looks like he will have another 10 years to wait.