29 Dec 2008

On Casey's Call To Arms

Over at Carbon Limited, Casey Cole calls us built environment commentators to arms over the government’s zero carbon consultation, downloadable here.

This consultation is a biggie, writes Casey, and I think he’s right. So let’s big it up and let the government know what we think before the consultation closes on March 18. I intend to dip into this subject over the coming weeks, partly to do it in digestible chunks, and partly to give me a little more time to collect my thoughts about it.

Initial feelings are not positive. Government housing policy is a mess. In the past few years they have pushed three objectives, all of which look pretty flawed to me.

• Let’s build 3 million new homes by 2020.

This target looks increasingly bizarre in the light of the credit crunch. At this point in time, builders can’t sell new homes for love nor money and the justification for all this new housebuilding — which was that we are suffering from a housing shortage — now looks like yet another bellow used to fan the housing bubble.

The government clings to the hope that this slowdown is a temporary blip and that normal conditions will return in a year or two. Normal for them means house prices rising again and people clammering to get on the housing ladder once more. I’m just not sure anymore.

OK, it’s only my opinion, but I don’t think we are going to return to the status quo ante. I don’t think we’ll ever see house prices back at 2007 levels. Or at least we won’t unless the government deliberately lets inflation out of the bag and devalues money, which is something else that worries me, but not something I am going to go into any more detail about here.

I think essentially that we’ve now finished building Britain, at last for a generation. Just as our road building programme came to a halt back in the 1990s, our house (and commercial) building era is now probably over, save for a few choice infills and lots of replacements; that sort of thing. I think the big plc housebuilders are dinosaurs, relicts from the era of unsustainable growth, and that they will all be out of business within two years. And I suspect that building land prices will carry on falling back towards agricultural land prices, where they once were. Back before the days of planning permission.

So there really isn’t a lot of point worrying about whether homes built after 2016 will be zero carbon or not because we will be building so few of them that it makes sod all difference.

But there is no box anywhere in the consultation for people who feel like this.

• Let’s build ten eco-towns

Lord knows, I have been on the attack against this absurd idea for yonks now, and I have now grown slightly bored of the whole topic, as has everyone else, by the looks of things. The eco-town proposal is now dead in the water, the credit crunch driving the final nail right through the heart. You’d think the government would be happy to shelve the whole thing if only to spare their own blushes, but no, they cling on desperately. Eco-towns even gets a page (p21) devoted to them in the zero carbon consultation paper. Why?

• Let’s build zero carbon homes

Conceived in a blaze of publicity, back in 2006 when the Code for Sustainable Homes was published, this too has always looked to me to be an ambition with zero sense. Building super energy efficient homes is one thing; turning them all into mini-power stations quite another. You can imagine this project coming out of some think tank or other, a minister or two then thinking, “that sounds like a great idea”, the Treasury then commenting “even better, we won’t have to pay a penny towards it” and, hey presto, it’s a policy.

And, ever since, good people have been scratching their heads, wondering just how on earth they are going to implement it. This consultation document, which Casey is pointing us towards, is the summation of all this head scratching. All 111 pages of it. If it really was a good idea, it would be very simple and easy to summarise on a single page of A4, so that every builder in the land could easily grasp what it’s all about. The very fact that there is a 111-page consultation about the definition of zero carbon shows that something is wrong with this whole project.

But there is no box anywhere in the consultation for people who feel like this either.

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