20 Apr 2012

Conservatory Tax: what happens next?

The press story about the Conservatory Tax seems to have died down. It was perhaps a ten day wonder and it appears to be game set and match to the Daily Mail. There may be a few further rumbles along the way, but the way press fever works in this country there is a good chance that none of the Sunday's will run with it and by this time next week everyone will have forgotten about it and will be focussing on something new.

But just before we all forget it, I'd like to make a few further comments, and add a few pointers.

• The heart of the issue was to do with a consultation exercise on Part L of the building regs, essentially whether or not to include a requirement for consequential improvements (CI) for those improving and/or extending their homes.

• It had precious little to do with conservatories (which are rarely classed as extensions), nor was it to do with tax, but the Mail chose to christen the whole episode the Green Conservatory Tax. The name has stuck, which adds to the irony if nothing else.

• It was also only indirectly related to the Green Deal, which is essentially a financing option for those wanting to undertake green improvements. But not many people understood the differences between Part L's CI and the Green Deal. As far as Mail readers were concerned, they were both green and therefore both bound to be expensive.

• The case for CI stands on its own. It doesn't need the Green Deal to help pay for it, anymore than complying with any other aspect of building regs requires special financing. But the consultation muddies the water by suggesting that CI might be paid for by using the Green Deal. This, to my mind, was a mistake, because it is ceding the high ground of building reg compliance and intimating that CI was too bitter a pill to swallow without some sugar coating.

• It also ties CI to the Green Deal. What if the Green Deal ends? That would lead to us having an unenforceable building reg. By the way, lovely summary of Green Deal here on Casey's blog.

• The CI triggers were muddy. Having to undertake CI when your boiler has just blown up and needs replacing is not a good policy. It gets up my nose, so can't fault the Daily Mail for highlighting it. An own goal. There should be some simple to understand, justifiable CI trigger. I would suggest that if you are increasing the heated are of the house, then you have to undertake CI. A stricter one would be that the overall heat loss performance of the house shouldn't be any different before and after your extension is built. Now that would be hard sell.

• The element of compulsion in CI remains thorny, although it's not quite as novel as people initially imagine. There are lots of examples of the building regs compelling people to undertake work they might not care to do, and sometimes this goes on inside the existing house rather than being confined to new works (think loft conversions meeting fire regs).

• One possible alternative might be to offer trade-offs. For instance: you can build your extension to 2016 standards (might cost you are extra £2,000, with much wider walls) or you can build it to 2010 standards and spend £2,000 on CI inside the existing house.

• Another option might be to make greater use of Energy Performance Certificates and say that, if you want to extend, you must upgrade the overall energy performance of the house, say from E to C. EPCs are in theory a great tool to use to upgrade the housing stock, but they are hardly being used at all: in fact they are widely derided for being pointless.

• Finally, it's worth saying that all these policy instruments (and that includes Part L in its entirety, Green Deal, EPCs, FITs, RHI, you name it) are substitutes for a simple effective carbon tax. As long as we embrace piecemeal solutions to the fundamental problem of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, we are likely to end up with flawed policy levers which get people very excited (both for and against) but are never going to achieve their goals.

18 Apr 2012

Conservatory Tax: Day 10, the plot thickens

The Conservatory Tax story broke on Easter Monday in the Daily Mail. That's 10 days ago. If you need to catch up, check out the last three blog posts on this site. By the weekend, both the Mail and the Telegraph were full of rumours of a "large Tory revolt" against Part L's consequential improvement proposals. No one was directly quoted.

Then on Monday 16 April, exactly one week after the initial story, the Telegraph and the Mail publish news that consequential improvements have been scrapped as a result of a "massive Tory backlash", and the next day the Mail prints a more revealing story that David Cameron himself thinks the whole idea was bonkers.

Drill deeper an it appears something very strange is going on here. This is a change of policy, no doubt about it. On Feb 7, Andrew Stunnell, the Lib Dem minister in charge of building regulations, made a speech at the BRE stating that consequential improvements were definitely going to happen. Stunnell said: "It's the grand old Duke of York of building regulations policy... but this time we're going to do it." This refers to the fact that twice before consequential improvements have been mooted in consultation, but never made it passed the finishing post into the published Part L.

But it now appears that Stunnell has been humiliated. "Cameron's spokesman", quoted in the Mail, says "This is a bonkers proposal and the Prime Minister frankly doesn’t understand how it got into the consultation document in the first place." Had he not thought to ask Stunnell? Does he really not have a clue what his ministers are up to? How embarrassing for both Cameron and Stunnell.

Cameron's source continues: "He is not going to allow a situation where someone who wants to do a bit of home improvement is forced to pay another 10 per cent on top."

Is this really a source close to Mr Cameron? Or Cameron himself hiding behind journalistic etiquette? Whoever uttered these words, it sounds like some bloke leaning over the bar at the Dog & Duck having a rant. Like "I only wanted to knock the two rooms into one. Bloody building inspector insisted I put a beam in between: cost an arm and a leg." Or "The sod made us put fire doors on the bedrooms when we did the loft. It was that or sprinklers. Jeezzus, I'm not made of money."

Then the source let's out "We’re all for going green but this is a ridiculous idea, innit." OK. I added the "innit", but you can almost hear it anyway. This is now apparently how government policy is being formulated. We are talking building regulations here, not Abu Qatada.

The old fashioned way of determining building regs went thus. Committees beaver away for months, civil servants draft and redraft documents, consultations get launched, reviews are undertaken and, yes, lobbying goes on behind the scenes. This is how every building regulation we have ever made has been shaped (till now).

Then you have the new way. The Daily Mail blows up a scare story out of almost nothing and 8 days later you have a source close to Mr Cameron spiking the carefully laid proposals, in a interview that's not even an interview. No official word on the change in policy has appeared anywhere on government websites or dispatches. It's all been conducted through the Mail.

And, stranger still, rather than congratulating the Prime Minister on "seeing sense", the Mail then goes and lambasts him for making another U-turn. In the very same article. U turn No 9; time taken to complete U-turn = one week.

It really does make you wonder who the hell is running this country. Is the Mail's agenda to attack any piece of environmental legislation they can uncover, or is it simply to humiliate the Prime Minister. Or both? Not only do they make Cameron sound like a half-wit, but they then go and slap him about for being a half-wit.

There are dozens of things Cameron could have said which wouldn't have pushed him into a corner like this. Such as "We are aware some of the proposals are controversial but it's only a consultation exercise and we will be looking closely how best to press ahead in the coming months." OK, this sounds a bit boring and staid, but it's got to be a bit better than "it's bonkers" and "I've no idea how this came about." That is just so pathetic it's embarrassing.

Something went on between Whitehall and Kensington High Street, home of the Daily Mail, but we outside the Westminster bubble are not party to it. There is more than a whiff of authenticity about it all because Downing St has come out and said they still support the Green Deal: if they supported Part L's consequential improvements as well, they would have said so, but instead there has been a stony silence.

What really pisses me off is that this is all happening in the midst of the Leveson enquiry which has a brief to look at the relationship between press and politicians. Here we have a prime example of the press interfering with due political process. They have barged in, demanded a forum with a menu of half-baked, ill-conceived criticisms, ridden roughshod over all other consultees, and have seen the government cave into their demands in the space of a week.

There could of course be more to this story. Far from being the instigator, the Mail may have been acting on behalf of disaffected Tories looking for a way to overturn these "unpopular proposals." But adding a level of conspiracy to the proceedings only makes matters worse. Either way, the verdict is damning. This is no way to run a railroad.

Finally, a lovely piece in the Guardian about what's been happening in Uttlesford DC for the past five years, where consequential improvements via planning permissions have been hailed a great success by the Tory-led council. And Uttlesford is not alone. I know of at least one other council, Forest of Dean, where similar schemes have been running and I suspect there may be more.

Consequential improvements are nothing new nor scary. You could argue that they underpin the entire edifice that is the building regulations, by making people go that extra mile to get things right. If you want to build a roof, brace it properly so it doesn't collapse. If you want a toilet, make sure it's vented so it doesn't smell. If you are putting in stairs, make sure people can get up and down them safely. And if you are making major alterations to your house, make sure you can afford to heat it. Just why is there a "massive Tory revolt"?

17 Apr 2012

The Case for Consequential Improvements

From the debate so far, you'd think that consequential improvements were designed purely and simply to get up the noses of aspirational, squeezed-middle, Daily Mail reading home improvers. They weren't. There is a good case for them and it's not being heard.

At the heart of the matter is the question of energy saving and the law of diminishing returns. It states that the first inch of so of insulation saves a mass of energy, but each subsequent inch saves less than the one before. This is expressed in mathematical terms in U value calculations which show that if you want to halve the heat loss, you have to double the amount of insulation.

It's relatively easy to halve the heat loss of an existing wall with no insulation in it. Adding around 50mm of insulation will reduce the U value from around 1.2 to around 0.6 (that's half). It's much more demanding to halve the heat loss in an extension which is being built to modern standards: getting a wall from a U value of, say, 0.3 down to 0.15 would involve widening the cavity from around 80mm to nearly 200mm, and forking out for 120mm extra insulation. There are other details to consider here as well, but for simplicities sake, I'll ignore them.

In doing this, your extension may have halved its energy loss but it's done it from a much lower starting point. The total energy saved in the new extension will be far less than you might save in the existing house where you've only had to add 50mm of insulation. You've also, incidentally, lost a significant floor area from your extension as the walls have to be so much wider to cope with all that insulation.

The financial calculations are even more compelling. Adding 120mm of extra insulation onto a 30m2 extension is complex and relatively expensive: it could easily add a couple of thousand onto build costs. Cavity wall insulation on an existing house usually costs between £300 and £500. The cavity wall insulation will result in far more energy being saved, and have a far greater effect on fuel bills. Like an order of magnitude.

Financially, it's a no brainer. It makes sense to insist that the existing house is upgraded rather than pouring money into building an ultra-low-energy extension.

There is more. Any energy saving you might hope to get in the newly-built extension will be mostly lost via the existing house, meaning that the expensively constructed low-energy extension will probably not save any appreciable amount of energy at all. And the whole house now risks being uncomfortable to live in, neither fish nor fowl. It would be like wearing a coat where the left side is made of a thin cotton and the right side of thick sheepskin. What a crazy design? Who would choose such a coat? Who would choose to live in such a house?

Like it or not, consequential improvements make sense, at least when the house is being extended. If it was to really have teeth, Part L would be insisting that anyone extending the heated floor area of an existing house should ensure that the overall heat loss of the new should be no more than the old. Now that would be draconian (but it would also make a lot of sense).

As it stands, the suggestions for improvements as set out in the Part L consultation are very watered down so that only four actions are required:
• cavity wall insulation (only if you've got an unfilled cavity)
• extra loft insulation (big deal)
• cylinder lagging (again, it's a nothing job, and over half the country doesn't even have a cylinder, they use a combi)
• draft proofing

It's very hard to see this lot costing £10,000 for anyone, unless you happen to own a huge country house. It's hard to see it costing much more than a grand on most homes. With or without the Green Deal, it's not going to be very expensive to install these and it makes sense it terms of overall comfort, if nothing else.

Up till now, Part L has tried to maintain some sort of parity of standards between new build and extensions, but it's reached the point when the two are about to separate because (as discussed) it makes little sense to build extensions to new build standards if the existing house is a drafty old pile. What should Part L do for extensions? Should it insist that they continue to ape new build standards (cost maybe £2,000 per extension, energy saving negligible) or should it branch out and insist that the equivalent money is spent in the existing house? The answer is obvious: consequential improvements are logical, sensible and justifiable.

200,000 extensions a year represents a huge floor area, comparable with the floor area arriving via newly built homes each year. Are we just going to give up on trying to get these homes fit for the 21st century? High energy bills are not going to go away anytime soon and Part L is one of the very few tools at the government's disposal to protect people from them. Ditch consequential improvements and you leave a gaping hole in energy policy.

As a footnote, I do think it was a mistake to add replacement windows and boilers as triggers for consequential improvements. I wonder whether they were placed in the consultation as a negotiating ploy, so that something could be conceded before the final version of Part L was published. If so, it has backfired badly. The principle of consequential improvements should be simple to grasp: if you chose to extend the heated envelope, you must improve the energy performance of the existing house. Adding window and boiler replacement as triggers muddied the simplicity of this golden rule.

16 Apr 2012

The Green Conservatory Tax: Part 2

It's been an interesting few days since the Daily Mail "broke" the story of the "Green Conservatory Tax" a week ago. The right wing press has laid into the story with predictable glee, having discovered yet another front on which to wage war with the green conspiracy.

The Green Deal has also come under fire and the Telegraph in particular is keen to promote the idea that there is now a split between the Tories and the LibDems over this.

Is there really a split? The Telegraph fingers Pickles, Shapps and Grayling as members of the anti-red tape Osborne growth group. The problem with this is that whilst consequential improvements might be seen as classic red-tape, they are also pro-growth. And the policy itself arises from a building regs consultation exercise, emanating from the DCLG, home to both Pickles and Shapps. Can these ministers have only just come across the whole issue of consequential improvements? I think not.

Unlike the press themselves. The Mail's follow up story on the Green Conservatory Tax, linked here, clearly shows a conservatory that would be exempt from consequential improvements. Look closely at the back and you can see an open leaf of a pair of French Doors, indicating that here you have a conservatory built outside the heated envelope, and thus not effected by Part L.

Far from being a "tax on aspiration", it's a policy designed to deal something about high heating bills. Informal polling of dozens of selfbuilders at the Homebuilding & Renovating show two weeks ago convinces me that low heating bills are now rather more of a middle class aspiration than conservatories.

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.

3 Apr 2012

The Future of Heating?

DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change) have published a document called The Future of Heating. It's what you might call a partial roadmap (yes, another one) describing how we might heat our homes and fire up what's left of our industry by 2050. I've spent a day immersed in it and have come away with some strange feelings.

It strikes me as a very strange document. It wings its way through 106 pages (typical for the genre) and goes into a fair amount of detail about many of the options facing us. Every now and then it asks for feedback, preferably evidence or experience-based. Nothing wrong with that, except that its never entirely clear whether its a narrative, a policy document or a consultation exercise. And its not entirely clear what sort of feedback they are looking for. Some of it very general, other questions are very specific.

I'm afraid I can't be much help on either front. For instance, I don't have experience of heat networks and I can't demonstrate the costs and benefits of them in reducing emissions, fuel poverty and/or fuel consumption. Neither can I tell you whether its a good idea to regulate the supply of heat through the networks. I feel so useless.

But another part of me feels that this document is actually designed to make me feel useless, because it seems to have everything under control. They don't need to know what little I know about heat networks because some geek at DECC has already been out there and done some research, and if you piece all this research together into one document, bugger me if you don't have a fully fledged strategy for a low carbon 2050. Yippee.

Only I didn't go Yippee at all. Instead I was left wondering about all the very basic questions they haven't asked. Like how much low carbon energy we will have to play with in 2050? And what will it cost? Without this information, every other policy set out in this document is nothing but conjecture.

Take §27 in the Exec Summary. It starts Reducing our demand for heat is a highly cost effective way of cutting emissions from buildings. Well, is it? No evidence is given to support this statement, it is just assumed to be the case. It might be cost effective to reduce demand by a little bit, but very expensive to reduce it by a lot (more than likely in fact). And without having some idea of what low carbon power sources will be available and how much they will cost, the cost-effectiveness of demand reduction is nothing more than guesswork.

I could go on, but it would labour the point. To be fair, the purpose of the document is to look at the many ways there are of being efficient with heat, from undertaking extreme retrofits to building heat networks and creating inter-seasonal heat stores. Even low carbon cooking gets a look-in. It's nothing if not a thorough review of all the options that are potentially there.

But it's all just a bit weightless. Without some way of knowing what energy will cost, we have no way of making any judgements about what will be worth doing, and what we can safely discard. The document ends up being nothing more than a long list of possible solutions, mixed in with boundless good intentions. We are informed that the grid will be decarbonised, but aren't told how much electricity it will supply. Nor are we informed whether we can use this electricity directly for heating, though we are given a hefty nod in that direction by the many hints dropped that heat pumps are about to save us all.

Instead, we are informed that the Green Deal, the Energy Company Obligation and Smart Meters will remove upfront costs, help vulnerable consumers and enable people to make the best use of their energy. Maybe, but at this point it starts to read like an election manifesto, and I begin to loose the will to carry on reading.....