UK Green Building Council’s mid-term assessment questions government’s chances of being “greenest ever”

zero carbon homes

Zero carbon homes

The government faces significant challenges in living up to its promise of being the “greenest government ever” and is showing “very worrying” signs with some aspects of its sustainable building policies, experts have warned.

The UK Green Building Council has published a progress-to-date report card on key aspects of the government’s green policy, which has given ministers  an overall rating of “D+” or “could try harder”.

In particular, it said ministers were sending “disconcerting” mixed messages to business  and that chancellor George Osborne had showed “a complete lack of understanding” of green growth opportunities, in contrast  with signals coming out of the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The Green Building Council gave the government its worst marks for zero-carbon new homes, which it said was a “very worrying” area.

It said former housing minister Grant Shapps – promoted to Conservative Party chair by David Cameron in this month’s reshuffle – had pledged to maintain the previous government’s ambitions in the area and define what constituted “zero carbon” by the end of summer 2010.

“He left the post two years later with the ambition of the policy significantly scaled back and the definition still up in the air,” the council said, adding the government had also put the Code for Sustainable Homes up for review, raising questions about environmental standards.

It said the government’s progress with zero-carbon commercial buildings was “also worrying”, with similar uncertainties about the future remaining.

More positively, the Green Building Council praised the government for its commitment to mandatory greenhouse-gas reporting, and for its procurement practices in  cutting carbon by 10% in a year for its Whitehall estate and targeting a 25% cut by 2015.

It added that the government home retro-fit policies were genuinely innovative, but faced significant practical concerns with their implementation.

Report card

Policy AreaScoreCommentsHow to improve
Overarching strategy on green buildingD +Could do better. Mixed messages are disconcerting for business. Worrying comments from the Chancellor – showing a complete lack of understanding of the green growth opportunity - contrast with positive messages from DECC and some other parts of Government. Green building issues still span different departments and lack a single ministerial champion. The Green Construction Board offers the best opportunity to set out a shared strategy but the Board still needs to prove it has real teeth.The upcoming energy efficiency strategy will be an important test, as will the UK’s response to its obligations under the new EU Energy Efficiency Directive.  The Green Construction Board’s ‘routemap’ to low carbon buildings will also be vital.   Together they represent great opportunities to provide the clarity and certainty necessary for business to invest.
Government procurement and leadershipCSome good progress, other very worrying behaviour. Full marks for Government beating its own target of cutting carbon by 10% in a year for its Whitehall estate and now targeting a 25% cut by 2015. Contrasts sharply with the short-sighted attempts by Michael Gove to scrap the use of BREEAM in schools.Government needs to redouble efforts to embed Whole Life Costing in procurement decisions. Re-committing to BREEAM in schools would see Government go to the top of the class. 
Home retrofitB -Shows promise but improvement urgently needed. The Green Deal is genuinely innovative and Government deserves credit for prioritising home retrofit, but delays, a likely damaging transition from existing policies to ECO, and potentially weak consumer take-up remain a significant concern. Introduction of minimum standards for private rented sector is excellent. Problems with FiTs are now mostly ironed out, although many investors are still reeling, and delays to RHI remain an issue. The Consequential Improvements furore was embarrassing, showing how vulnerable sensible policy can be to tabloid headlines.Proof will be in the pudding on the Green Deal. HMT needs to accept that long-term structural incentives are likely to be needed to ensure there is a vibrant market. Government could still do the right thing on Consequential Improvements but requires political courage.
Cutting energy use in existing commercial buildingsCSome good work, but overall disappointing. Policies that impact the commercial property sector are complex, overlapping and – in some cases - aren’t driving the necessary change. We’ve seen a U-turn on roll-out of Display Energy Certificates (DECs), and the Carbon Reduction Commitment is an ongoing mess where Government has tied its hands by retaining the revenues. However, the Energy Bill brought in minimum performance standards, which was a bold and welcome move.Green Deal for non-domestic buildings could make some difference, particularly for SMEs and further clarity (and cementing ambition) on minimum standards – i.e. mandatory upgrade of poor-performing buildings could be a game-changer.
Zero carbon new homesE-Very worrying. When Grant Shapps became housing minister he promised to do two things. Firstly to maintain the ambition of the last government’s zero carbon homes policy and secondly to clarify the definition of what constitutes ‘zero carbon’ by the end of summer 2010. He left the post two years later with the ambition of the policy significantly scaled back and the definition still up in the air. Government has put the Code for Sustainable Homes up for review, raising questions about environmental standards.The new Housing Minister Mark Prisk has the chance to finalise the definition of zero carbon, including providing much needed clarity on Allowable Solutions. The long-awaited Part L consultation response will be a signal of intent from Government. The upcoming standards review needs to ensure environmental ambitions are not watered down.
New build non domestic buildingsE +Also worrying. Zero carbon in the commercial sector now means regulated energy only, just as in the domestic sector. Government remains committed to the 2019 target, but in practice there remains the same uncertainty about this as with new homes. But we have a little bit longer to sort it out.Government needs to grasp the nettle and set out the timetable for zero carbon commercial buildings, including clarifying the definition, in order to provide certainty to industry. Again, we await the Part L response.
Reporting requirementsA -Well done!The commitment to mandatory greenhouse gas reporting (including big companies in the construction and property sector) was a welcome one. Although care needs to be taken to clarify potential areas of overlap with the Carbon Reduction Commitment.

Government can’t rest on this issue, despite the favourable score. We need to increase the scope and requirements over time.

Rolling out DECs could help provide consistency in measurement and reporting across the plethora of schemes covering the built environment.

PlanningC -Started well, recent cause for concern - must stop picking fights! Just when everyone thought a broad consensus had been reached on the NPPF, Government has ushered in a new wave of uncertainty by apparently wanting to look again at the planning system, including poorly thought-through plans on home extensions.It remains to be seen how local authorities implement the NPPF and what comes of recent pronouncements from Westminster.
Green SkillsB -Getting better, but still a way to go. Still confusing for training providers, employers and learners alike. Investment starting to flow through to collaborative and employer-led education initiatives, with significant investment in apprenticeships. Going forward, must focus more on professionals already in work (CPD, knowledge top up etc), and mechanisms for ensuring up-to-date, robust project case study findings feed directly into training and education programmes.
Green FinanceB -Definite promise being shown but room for improvement. The Green Investment Bank is a great prospect, with a welcome commitment to use it to support energy efficiency in both homes and commercial buildings. But the Bank can’t yet borrow and there have been hiccups on FiTs and RHI which have undermined progress in this area.The big tests are yet to come. Done well, the GIB could be the envy of the world. But if it is under-capitalised and constrained by a lack of political vision and commitment, it could fail to achieve its potential.