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.