11 Apr 2012

On the "Green Tax on Conservatories"

Consultations on Part L, the Energy Efficiency Regs for England & Wales, don't normally gather much in the way of newspaper coverage. They are very technical, very nerdy and usually only read by people within the industry.

Just about the most contentious issue for Part L for the past two iterations has been whether or not to include so-called consequential improvements which would require people making alterations to their houses to carry out additional works to upgrade the energy performance of the rest of the house.

In 2005 it was mooted in the consultation, only to be dropped from the final document. The same thing happened in 2008. The reason was the Daily Mail effect. Ministers feared being torn to shreds by the press if they put through such measures.

Meanwhile, one of two local authorities started insisting on consequential improvements being carried out, making it a condition of planning permissions for extensions. No one batted an eyelid. And somewhere along the line, something very similar slipped into Part L for when roof repairs are to be carried out. Not a squeak from the press about this. People just comply.

So when the latest Part L consultation came out, yet again consequential improvements for domestic properties were back in, and this time the building regs minister Andrew Stunnell went on record as saying they wouldn't be dropped in the final version of Part L. About time, said the sustainerati.

And then bang on cue, the Daily Mail pounced. It went front page this past Easter Monday. It's here, with no less than 807 reader comments. It was followed here in the Telegraph. And here by Christopher Booker. And it got onto Radio 4 as well, where Tory MP Tim Yeo was critical.

Now one wonders exactly why this story hit the headlines on Easter Monday. It was a classic quiet news day, after a wet Easter holiday, a time when lots of people were probably thinking of driving off the the garden centre and spending some money. But, on the other hand, this is not investigative journalism. The consultation has been out since 31st January and the calls for responses on the controversial consequential improvements clauses closed on March 27. If the Mail had really wanted to launch of people's campaign against the changes, it could have run its headline before the consultation period ended.

And secondly, their story is full of mistakes. Let's go through them.

1) Conservatories. It's headlined "Green Tax on Conservatories." But in reality most conservatories will not be affected by this proposal. The typical bolt-on conservatory that you might pick up at a garden centre will not be subject to this levy, anymore than your greenhouse or your garden shed. Only when openings in the existing house are made and the conservatory becomes part of the heated envelope does Part L come into play, because at this point you have turned a conservatory into a glazed extension. It's worth noting that all three press stories use Conservatory Tax in their headlines.

2) Tax. You are being asked to comply with building regulations. That is a legal requirement. But it's not a tax.

3) Mandatory 10% levy. The idea is that it shall be mandatory but if there is nothing sensible to spend it on then it won't be enforced. There are only four measures they want you to consider, being loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, cylinder lagging and draft proofing. If you lived in a house with a combi, solid walls and a loft conversion, then the only thing they could ask you to do would be draft proof. And if you already had some fairly decent draft proofing, you could tell them to get on their bike. The improvement measures have to be sensible and appropriate. They shouldn't cost more than 10% of the main body of works. At least that what the consultation says.

4) The tone.

"Millions of householders who want to build a conservatory, replace a broken boiler or install new windows will be forced to spend hundreds of pounds more on ‘green’ projects."

Well the conservatory bit is wrong, but the broken boiler and new windows bits are essentially right. However the impression is that this is a done deal. It's not: it's just a consultation exercise. This crucial bit of information is missing.

"They will not be permitted to carry out the home improvement or repair unless they agree to fork out for measures such as loft or wall insulation."

I'm not sure this is true, but it does actually raise a very good point. What if someone refuses to have cavity wall insulation carried out? There are lots of people who are convinced it's a bad idea.

"The work is expected to add ten per cent to the cost of any building project in the home." The 10% figure is in the consultation. It's a maximum. And it won't apply to "any building project in the home", rather notifiable extensions, loft conversions and garage conversions. That's all. Work such as new kitchen or bathrooms, knocking walls down, changing floors, anything in the garden (including conservatories) is not affected by these measures.

So much for the facts. The article is inaccurate and it's scaremongering. The Booker one is far worse (but that's to be expected - he has form). But you only have to trawl through some of the comments to realise that it's scored a bullseye. The Daily Mail prides itself on stirring middle England and stirred it it has. And it does raise some difficult issues.

How exactly do you enforce people to undertake this extra work? If your boiler needs replacing, it's often a distress purchase. You want it done quickly and cheaply. The plumber will normally sign it off as building regs compliant (the good ol competent person scheme at work). Are they going to be in a position to demand that you then carry out some draft proofing? A bit cheeky, don't you think?

Or if you do a loft conversion, you will be insulating the roof before you put the plasterboard in place, so won't you have carried out some improvements already?

And would we end up with crews of replacement window businesses that throw cavity wall insulation in for free? Just imagine how good they will be. They won't.

The attempts to link this all to the Green Deal also look a bit flakey to me. That's political window dressing, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

My guess is that the requirement for additional work when replacing boilers or windows will be dropped. However well intentioned they might be, they must be largely unenforceable. The extension requirements will make it through, because they sort of make sense because the works are very much elective and they involve having contractors crawling over your house in any event. The conservatory bit? well, it's a red herring.

That's not to say that conservatories aren't a contentious issue in Part L circles because they are also very hard to police. People build bolt-ons and then knock through so that they end up sucking heat out of the existing house. Thermally, they can be a real disaster. But can you legislate for such actions? After all, you can insist on triple glazing everywhere if you want to, but you can't force people to close their windows at night. My pdf word search tells me that conservatories don't rate a single mention in the consultation, which suggests to me that the policy wonks don't think we can go any further with them.

As Part L gets tighter and tighter, these types of issues become more apparent. Whilst we can legislate till the cows come home to make new homes perform like a Thermos, we are left with this legacy of 25 million leaky homes which are very hard to improve. Part L recognises this by dividing itself into two parts, A for new builds and B for extensions and renovations. The reason the consequential improvements section is in section B is because it's already so far behind A in what is technically achievable that it's embarrassing. It now looks like in future the limits to what B may be able to insist on is going to be a political rather than technical.


  1. You're dead right on your last point: the question of how to improve existing buildings is a question of political motivation. It is also about finding ways to deliver improvements to many hard to reach properties (hence the consequential improvement legislation).

    If does seem weird to want consequential improvement when someone is replacing a knackered old boiler with a modern efficient one - surely the boiler is the improvement already!

    It sounds rubbish, but why in the case of something like a boiler can't householders be offered improvements as an option if they want it? If they've had a man in and have fuel bills on their minds it's the perfect time to let them know what else they could do.

  2. You have to ask, if the Govt are so keen to get you to improve home insulation, why do they charge 20% vat on it down the builders merchants?

  3. When you look for a DIY conservatory you should be looking for a company that provides all your glazed panels including the conservatory roofing panels, doors with locking mechanisms, all the connectors to attach the panels to each other and to your base or wall, a full guttering kit to ensure proper drainage and a full fixing kit.

  4. The government likes the idea of improving home energy performance but a) doesn't really understand it and b) has no money to pay for it so 'forcing' people to do it (for their own good of course) moves the cost to the home owner. It probably seemed such a good idea in that policy meeting.

    Meanwhile, out in the real world, nobody likes to be told what they can and can't do to their own homes. After all if you are not free to decide what work is done to your own house what freedoms are left? Building Regulations are starting to get very personal.

    It is only in the last ten years or so that the building regulations moved from being a set of essentially common sense requirements for a sound building to regulations aimed at achieving politically set goals for reducing CO2 emissions that, rightly or wrongly, many householders have not the slightest interest in.

    The 'enforcement' of Building Regs has up to now been more or less a matter of 'consenting adults' negotiating between trades and officialdom to come up with a certificate that the paying customer thinks is important, or at least worth having.

    We are now moving into territory where the paying customer is thinking that the game is not worth the candle. Some question why they are going to all the trouble of getting building regs consent anyway, after all what is the worst that can happen? There is a very slim chance that they may made to apply and comply retrospectively.

    The only other meaningful form of 'enforcement' that I am aware of is the mass of 'certificates' that the system now generates for even small jobs and that solicitors now ask for when a house is sold. (No, not that many at the moment) Inevitably some of these bits of paper get lost and anyway the regs have changed so often, who can remember which ones applied when? There are (at least) two workarounds.

    One, just don't mention the work, "any new windows?" No. "New porch?" It was like that when I bought it, etc.

    Two. The solicitors realised that it made no sense to block a sale just because the paperwork for the wood stove had been lost (after all no sale - no fee), so a simple and fairly cheap indemnity insurance can be bought to cover the faint possibility that the new owner might be financially penalised. That makes the problem go away.

    If the government really wants to continue down the road of using building regualtions to force people to do things they don't want to, they are going to have to design with a whole new and quite intrusive approach which is likely to be both financially and politically expensive.


    "The attempts to link this all to the Green Deal also look a bit flakey to me. That's political window dressing, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down."

    I don't think you should underestimate the resentment aroused by connecting the Green Deal to this. As you have pointed out before, the Green Deal is a fairly poor one. Work that would have been done by an 'approved contractor' for free or at a subsidize price now has to be paid for. It looks to some as if they are being made to pay for work they don't want in order to subsidize the government's friends.

    The situation is made worse by the hopelessly optimistic estimates (as you have blogged before) of the savings to be had from work such as cavity wall insulation and new boilers that will be used to set payments on the Green loans.

  5. Stoat,

    There are a few other areas that spring to mind, most notably Part G which sets out to limit the water you use in the home by insisting on low flow showers and hip baths. It thus far only applies to new housing which is why it hasn't caused much of a stir so far but if they were to try and move it to existing homes it would make the Green Conservatory tax debacle look like a storm in a teacup (which it probably is).

  6. In fact i was browsing to find something else in that search i got your post its really amazing and good thanks for posting.

  7. Insulation/new windows etc are taxed at 20% but energy is taxed at 5%. Reversing that might help for a start. I'm sure the daily mail would support such a sensible move...