Building surveys industry reactions to yesterday's government proposal to make zero-carbon housing targets more achievable

Yesterday, the government announced proposals to make its zero-carbon target for UK homes more easily achievable by allowing carbon offsetting and retrofitted energy-efficiency improvements to be taken into account and putting a cap on what housebuilders are required to spend.

Under new proposals from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), developers would be allowed to hit the 2016 zero-carbon target by counting improvements made to the energy efficiency of existing homes around new schemes.

Any renewable power generated by the development and sold on to other developments would also be taken into account, as would section 106 payments towards renewable energy infrastructure. Moreover, the government would also set a financial limit for housebuilders on the cost of making homes carbon neutral.

Housing minister Margaret Beckett said herself of the new proposals: "I am absolutely committed to our 2016 target, and this demanding goal is already spurring action here and abroad. With the consultation process we are launching today, we are confident we will be able to achieve our ambitions while giving the industry flexibility for how they get there."

But what do those in the industry make of the new announcement? Building went in search of reaction to the proposals.

Paul King, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council

Simply offsetting emissions in nearby existing homes through energy-efficiency improvements is not a solution – we need radical action in both new homes and existing homes; it's not an either/or. We urge government to stick to its guns and rule this option out. A “zero-carbon home” built using this mechanism would not be doing what it said on the tin.

Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat shadow housing minister

Yet again the government is shirking from its environmental commitments.

Energy-efficiency improvements to existing homes are essential but developers shouldn't be able to cheat the standard by offering insulation for neighbouring homes. Allowing carbon offsetting is simply a get-out clause that undermines the aim of making new homes genuinely environmentally friendly.

Bill Dunster, founder of Bill Dunster Architects

The government says we can only meet 15% of electricity demand from renewables and the 15% will be needed from the existing homes. So what about the 8 million new homes making up 30% of stock by 2050 that is yet to be built? The opportunities for renewable energy generation offsite are limited.

Most of the complaints from the UK-GBC are about cost. But we have built true zero-carbon homes at reasonable cost at densities of 50 homes per hectare or about 70% of UK housing. You only get into trouble at much higher densities - around 200-250 homes per hectare.

The reason there's been so much lobbying of the government is that the people with the real money who own the land will have to take a significant reduction in land value before they build anything if they are going to have to have onsite power generation.

Imtiaz Farookhi, chief executive of the National House-Building Council

It is a positive step in the right direction and allows for the flexibility essential to make this agenda happen. We are at a crossroads on the journey to zero carbon, and this is arguably the most significant policy decision for decades. It is therefore critical that we get it right and agree a workable definition... I strongly urge the industry, despite the dire market conditions, to put its weight behind the debate and respond fully to the consultation.

Mark Clare, group chief executive of Barratt Developments

A workable definition of zero carbon is critical if we are to deliver environmental ambitions in an affordable way - particularly in the hostile economic environment that we face today. A more flexible definition of zero carbon, as we recommended in the UK-GBC report back in May, is welcome, but we need to be very clear about exactly what needs to be delivered and how the solutions can be delivered by the developer, working in partnership with the energy supply industry.

Stephen Stone, chief executive of Crest Nicholson

The economic downturn we are battling with at the moment does not mean that climate change goes away. The government needs to decide what its priorities are, and we believe that cutting carbon emissions should be at the top of the list. But that means other things might have to give, and government has to act to help the industry deliver much-needed new homes.

Karl Whiteman, managing director of Berkeley Homes Urban Renaissance

We're committed to the zero-carbon target, and stand by the recommendations of the UK-GBC report on the definition. There's been a lot of innovation over the last couple of years, and we'll see more - but only if the industry is confident that government is going to stick to its policy, and help the housebuilding industry through these challenging times.

Andrew Eagles, Sustainable Homes

The ideas are potentially useful but they need quite close monitoring. It may be over time that getting to zero carbon might become more cost effective; they could still push for zero carbon but right now in some instances it will be far quicker and easier to get CO2 reductions from existing than new stock.

Helen Taylor, sustainability consultant

The government has proved itself quite big in this. There are better ways of improving energy efficiency than achieving code level six, with all the embodied carbon and messing around with technology, etc. I think it's an admirable improvement. But it's a cop-out, definitely. An admirable cop-out.

Neil Jefferson, chief executive of Zero Carbon Hub

We welcome today's announcement by the DCLG… It is a direct response to industry uncertainty and concern over the previous definition, which was seen by some parts of the industry as unworkable. We will now seek to evaluate the new definition hand-in-hand with the industry as part of the Zero Carbon Hub's core dissemination and delivery role.

Simon McWhirter, homes campaign manager at WWF-UK

There is no doubt that the government needs to re-examine its definition of zero carbon if it is to set developers on course to reaching the 2016 target. But making this target more achievable should not by any stretch of the mark result in a weakening of the current guidelines. WWF wants to see much stronger regulations that clearly define the minimum energy efficiency of new homes, as this will be vital to ensure the UK is making deep cuts in CO2 emissions under the new Climate Change Act.

We need to be improving the energy efficiency of all the existing stock as it is, and that will be covered by a separate consultation due (hopefully) in the summer. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul if we allow a zero-carbon definition to include the existing stock when both have to be done anyway.

Brian Berry, director of external affairs at the Federation of Master Builders

The problem is that the government still does not understand that it needs to make choices. If you keep forcing up the build costs through ever-increasing design specifications, taxes and planning restrictions; affordability suffers, demand falls and fewer homes are built as a result. While we welcome the long overdue consultation on the definition of zero carbon, it is going to achieve nothing if people cannot afford to buy the houses built to these standards, and we end up building even fewer houses than we are now, as a result.

Andrew Sutton, Gaunt Francis Architects project architect on Barratt’s code level six house at the BRE

I’d welcome the continued commitment to the 2016 deadline and especially welcome the review of on-site/near-site/off-site energy supply: The Barratt Green House demonstrated that true zero carbon with fully on-site supply was impractical and that the long-term way forward must be decarbonising the national grid with a decentralised generation network. Housebuilders cannot be expected to become power companies; and, provided it is strictly controlled, this route allows them to get on with building homes. However, those homes must be built to ensure they operate on an extremely low level of energy required, hence the suggestion that the “carbon compliance” levels could be as low as 44% better than current regulation is potentially a concern.