13 Jun 2013

The strange case of the missing Building Reg

I can distinctly remember sitting in the audience at Ecobuild this year (March 5 - 7) listening to Don Foster, whose is a DCLG minister (official title Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Department for Communities and Local Government) saying "It'll be May at the latest."

What was he talking about? And why didn't it happen?

He was talking about publishing the final version of the energy efficiency regulations for buildings in England, known to all as Part L. Part L has been in existence since 1976. Every few years, it gets uprated to reflect changes in the energy landscape and, to a lesser extent, changes in technology. In 2006, Yvette Cooper, who was then the minister in charge of building regs, announced the Code for Sustainable Homes and, with it, a timetable for future Part L upgrades. These being 2010, 2013 and finally 2016.

2016 was seen as the holy grail of energy efficiency, the zero carbon house. It was assumed at the time that the Code for Sustainable Homes and the building regs would come into alignment at this point. 2010 and 2013 were to be stepping stones along the way. Part L, in particular, was in the hot seat here. Unlike the Code for Sustainable Homes which was mostly voluntary, Part L is mandatory.

Now Part L revisions have always been subject to a fair amount of lobbying. The product manufacturers love the revisions because they get to sell more kit (think insulation) and more expensive kit (think boilers and heat pumps). The housebuilders hate them because they have to pay for all this gear. Part L revisions start life in draft form which is subject to consultation. The final version of Part L is habitually late and this in itself causes lots of niggly problems because no one is up to speed by the time the new regs come into effect.

In order to address these issues, the government has published a timetable showing when the building regs will change. All well and good, and very responsible and grown up. The 2013 Part L is due to come into force on October 1st this year and, by convention, the regulation should be published some months ahead of the enforcement date, for obvious reasons. Hence the question to Don Foster back in March which prompted his response about a May publication date.

So why have we got to June 13th without the new Part L? Final versions of Part L have been late before but never this late. This late is ridiculously late. It's all very well lobbying and carrying out base political manoeuverings, but there must be some one in a position to say "Time gentlemen please." After all, it's only a building regulation. You can argue till the cows come home about whether a wall U value should be 0.18 or 0.17 or 0.16, but the world isn't going to come to an end whatever the outcome.

The strange thing is that the most contentious aspect of this revision (it was in the draft version), the requirement for consequential improvements, was dealt a death blow last year by the Daily Mail's Conservatory Tax campaign. All those in favour of toughening Part L have conceded that this proposal is dead in the water and will not be part of Part L 2013. So it seems unlikely that there is much behind-the-scenes lobbying going on here.

What else could they be arguing about? Well we still don't have a definition of what a zero carbon house should actually consist of. But that is an argument that can wait till the 2016 version of Part L. 2013 was only ever to be a stepping stone.

There has been a debate about adopting Fabric Energy Efficiency Standards or FEES. The draft version made a good case for so doing, if only because they are much easier to understand than the existing metrics for overall energy performance of new builds. But I can't really see this as a reason for holding up publication.

So could it be the Treasury, up to their usual tricks in trying to subvert the green machine? Possibly. Part L is certainly a green leaning regulation, and a tougher Part L would be more expensive to implement, which the Treasury doesn't like. But the added cost is hardly a game changer: it will add, at most, a few hundred pounds to the cost of a new house. Delaying Part L publication will arguably add rather more, because the manufacturers won't be able to tool up in time to produce Part L 2013 compliant kit. On balance, it seems unlikely that the Treasury is that bothered about Part L.

So just what is going on behind the scenes? I have no idea. I can only surmise that Part L's non-appearance is symptomatic of a non-functioning department in the midst of a non-functioning government. The novelty of a coalition government, and the optimism that accompanied it, is now long dead.


  1. It wouldn't surprise me if, even though this is not a very significant change, there is a general tendency to block it by people who do not see it as a step in the right direction. Coalition politics have meant compromises and I think having to do that means they are now getting petty...

  2. Fred,

    You are probably right. But blocking it seems to be in nobodies interest. It just creates confusion and stops investment.