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.