A leaked report has revealed how the government is planning to put the burden of its demanding environmental policy on housebuilders. We look at the plans and their implications
One of the problems any government faces when it tries to decide housing policy is that it is difficult to row straight when so many of its departments are trying to stick their oar into the water. Well, this government is about to do something rather dramatic. Despite the well publicised social and economic imperatives of building more houses in the south-east of England, it is going to put environmental sustainability at the heart of its policy.

Next month, the government-sponsored Sustainable Buildings Task Group will hand ministers a document that will establish a greenprint for the future of construction in general, and housebuilding in particular. The report will contain a list of recommendations that will form the backbone of policy for years to come. Building has seen a version of the outline recommendations, and if implemented, they will provide the industry with some of its biggest challenges since the Egan report. Of particular concern to housebuilders, the task group has drawn up tough targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from houses in growth areas such as the Thames Gateway.

The task group was set up last October at the Better Buildings Summit after the government admitted that things had to change. It was charged with finding ways to make buildings more efficient in their use of water, energy and timber.

The breadth of membership of this task group means that the report will carry weight. It is made up of representatives from the four Whitehall departments responsible for sustainable development, housebuilders, manufacturers, trade unions, councils and pressure groups such as the Energy Saving Trust and World Wildlife Fund.

The recommendations outlined here will be given extra clout by a private member's bill (see "What happens if the bill becomes law", overleaf).

The Sustainability and Secure Buildings Bill, introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunell, will enable the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to incorporate sustainability targets into the Building Regulations, thereby fast-tracking the task group's recommendations.

Tough carbon emission targets A prime objective of the task group is to minimise CO2 emissions from developments in the four areas in the South-east that the ODPM has earmarked for housing growth. With this in mind, the task group's energy working group is recommending that the CO2 emissions of new buildings in these areas be 25% below the level advised by existing Building Regulations. This differential would have to be maintained even when the Part L rules governing energy efficiency are tightened in 2005 and 2010. At this stage the percentage of new buildings that will be affected by this policy is unknown, but it could be more than 50%, according to the document.

The energy working group has estimated that the cost of achieving the improvement would be as much as £3000 for a three-bedroom semi-detached house. The costs could include the need for wider cavities, improved floors, roofs and windows, wet-plastered wall finishes and a ventilation system.

Greater savings could be made at lower cost if we tackled existing housing supply

Pierre Williams, HBF

The need for such improvements are rejected by the House Builders Federation, which believes the government should be concentrating on existing stock. "Common sense says that greater savings could be made at lower cost if we tackled existing housing," says Pierre Williams, head of media at the HBF. "It's a pity that so much focus is being put into trying to make already efficient housing slightly more efficient, with minimal savings but sufficient extra cost."

There are four types of mechanisms that could be used to reduce carbon emission according to the working group – regulation, fiscal incentives, voluntary agreements and planning. Its main recommendation for meeting the CO2 targets is for the ODPM to issue developers with stringent planning policy standards.

The recommendation with the most
far-reaching consequences for builders on site is likely to be the working group's call for mandatory air-pressure testing. The aim would be to ensure the quality of Part L robust standard details are not compromised by bad workmanship.

The working group's concern about build quality is underlined by a recent BRE study, which found that of 40 homes built with Part L RSDs, only 25% passed the air pressure test. Non-compliance with Building Regulations is a continuing issue for the ODPM (see Building, 8 April, page 54).

The question of mandatory testing will arouse controversy in the housebuilding industry. "Mandatory testing will cause disruption at the end of the housebuilding process – and what happens when it fails?" asks Richard Hodkinson, head of Richard Hodkinson Consultancy. He says that remedial work on top of the extra cost of sustainability in growth areas could deter development. "If the land is in the South-east, has no flood risk, has been remediated and is near public transport then it won't be affected. But if the land is the opposite then the sustainability costs will have a significant impact."

Fiscal incentives
The energy working group recognises that the industry needs carrots as well as sticks to carry out the government's sustainable objectives. It suggests that fiscal incentives could be targeted at homeowners and developers. The idea is that a reduced stamp duty will create demand from the homebuyer and in turn will act as an incentive for the developer.

The government could also offer a rebate on corporation tax for developers that build homes or commercial buildings to a certain standard. The working group also suggests providing stamp duty rebates for homeowners who carry out certain environmental improvements.

Government as customer
As the public sector owns or rents 30% of the new and refurbished housing market, the energy working group says it is paramount that the government leads by example. The working group says that if government announced it would only rent low-carbon buildings, for example, it would force property companies to improve all their stock. It also calls on the government to insist on making energy efficiency a requirement for PFI bidders. The government is expected to set benchmarks covering energy, water, waste and construction materials later this year.

The WWF, which is campaigning for a million sustainable homes by 2012, approves of this line of attack. "The government is in a position through its involvement in procurement to raise the bar in terms of what's expected of the industry. Government best practice will then hopefully be disseminated into the private sector," says Stuart Poore, public affairs officer at the WWF.

Mandatory testing will cause disruption at the end of the housebuilding process

Richard Hodkinson

The government could also force PFI bidders to incorporate energy-efficiency costs into their tender prices. The working group recommends that whole-life performance becomes the standard assessment in priority growth areas.

The idea is that by balancing the upfront construction costs against maintenance costs over 25 years, it will be possible to find out the true value of an energy efficient building and allow the government to give more weighting to the sustainability features of a PFI bid.

Higher benchmarks will present tremendous challenges to the building industry according to Rudi Klein, chief executive of the Specialist Engineering Contractors' Group. "The industry has a shock in store meeting these benchmarks for procurement. It will give added impetus for the industry to integrate processes in order to come up with solutions. There's going to have to be more dialogue and more joined-up design," says Klein.

According to Klein, the government's CIPER forum will provide an early warning system for the industry. "CIPER is an opportunity to inform and add value to the process. Industry can now join in the debate about the options [presented by the Sustainable Buildings Task Group]."

Higher standards for homeowners
There is one recommendation that has divided the working group. Some of the members have suggested that when homeowners and developers apply for planning permission for an extension or material changes, not only must these new features include cost-effective energy efficiency measures, but the whole of the existing building must be improved. More insulation, heating controls and condensing boilers would be among the measures that may have to be taken.

This will be a political hot potato. The electorate will not be keen on spending money on making their homes more efficient when they build an extension. For this reason the leaked document notes that: "This recommendation has not yet been agreed by the whole group and may not be put forward."

Fallout from building on floodplains
Recommendations being considered by the task group's water working group will focus on building on floodplains and water conservation. To improve water efficiency the task group says that sustainability measures could be a condition of planning consent. Buildings in floodplains may also have to be structurally resistant to water flows and there may be standards set for external envelope resistance to water penetration.

Other measures include a requirement that repairs be made in a flood resistant manner or with flood resilient materials. The task group also thinks developers should pay a proportion of the insurance for homebuyers living in floodplains.

It's already happening The recommendations of the task group are likely to be fed into industry in the next few years through planning changes, tougher regulations, fiscal incentives and gentle cajoling through voluntary agreements. In the development areas, there are already indications of things to come. English Partnerships, the government's regeneration agency, is demanding that all homes on its land be built to a BRE Eco Homes "very good" standard. For the Millennium Communities schemes, EP is demanding the "excellent".

What happens if the bill becomes law?

The government’s drive towards sustainability will receive an almighty boost if the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill becomes law in the autumn. The private member’s bill introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunell will give the government powers to include energy and security measures in the Building Regulations.

“The bill is a key delivery mechanism,” says Stuart Poore of the WWF. “It will enable the Sustainable Buildings Task Group’s recommendations to be regulated far more quickly and effectively.” Under the current Building Act 1984, the government is only able to deal with the conservation of fuel and power through Building Regulations. With Stunell’s amendments, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will be able to set standards in Building Regulations that target waste, water, energy and procurement of construction materials.

The bill will also bring schools and public utilities into the scope of Building Regulations, and force the government to report to parliament at regular intervals on the progress it is making on construction sustainability.

The bill is making good progress. On 30 April, it gets its third reading in parliament before it returns to the House of Lords. If it remains unopposed it could become law by September or early October. When individual Building Regulations are next reviewed, the ODPM will be able to put forward draft changes based on the task group’s recommendations.