4 Jun 2014

The Death of Zero Carbon

It shouldn't really come as much of surprise, but it looks as though the zero-carbon target for new housing is about to be abandoned wholesale, with the news that there will now be an exemption for smaller sites from having to even meet allowable solutions.

Instead, the target will be to meet the current building regs. Which isn't a target as such at all - it's what everyone has had to do all along. These building regs may be upgraded a little in 2016, but for now all bets are off. In other words, we might just as well have not bothered with the whole edifice that became the Code for Sustainable Homes and, with it, the 2016 zero-carbon building target.

The rationale for all this is that we are even more desperately short of housing than we were in 2007 when the scheme was launched and that it would somehow be against everyone's interest to insist on higher building standards because they cost more. In other words, the need for cheap new housing trumps our longer-term concerns about rising fuel prices and reducing carbon emissions.

Once again, it's a blatant example of how political the housing standards debate has become. The growth monkeys have won this particular battle. Their battle cry is "More houses, more units, more, more, more." Never mind if they are any good or not, or whether people actually want them, nothing must stand in the way of builders churning out maximum numbers. And zero-carbon targets are, frankly, in the way.

The shrinking violets, the liberals and the greens, have had to take a back seat. Their vision of better quality housing is, for the time being, shredded. On the surface, it appears to be a rout, but it's not quite that simple. For a start, the zero-carbon target was always indefensible. You simply can't build a zero-carbon house and there is no point trying to pretend that you can. For that, Yvette Cooper and friends (who launched the idea) deserve a round of brickbats. Once you go down the road of allowable solutions and offsetting, you might just as well admit you are wasting your time. Which they didn't.

However, many of the design ideas incorporated into the Code were and are very sound and we will have to wave goodbye to them for a while, although some have made it through to the building regs over the course of the past eight years.

The fact is that building better homes does cost more, but the bulk of this cost is met by the landowner who sells the plots in the first place. If the cost of building house X goes up by £15,000, then the purchase price of the plot it stands on falls by a similar amount, so that neither the housebuilder nor the purchaser pays any more that they would have done.

So who really benefits by this shredding of these targets? Not the housebuilders, not the house buyers, but the landowners. It also very doubtful that keeping these targets would have done anything to dampen the rate of new housebuilding. But that's politics for you.

Incidentally, the text of the announcement which is published today is a fantastic example of how political-speak completely turns common sense on its head:

The Government is committed to implementing a zero carbon standard for
new homes from 2016. But it is not always technically feasible or cost
effective for house builders to mitigate all emissions on-site.
The Government would set a minimum energy performance standard through
the building regulations. The remainder of the zero carbon target can be met
through cost effective off-site carbon abatement measures – known as
‘allowable solutions’. These provide an optional, cost-effective and flexible
means for house builders to meet the zero carbon homes standard, as an alternative to increased on-site energy efficiency measures or renewable energy (such as solar panels). 
Small sites, which are most commonly developed by small scale house builders, will be exempt. The definition of a small site will be consulted on shortly, and set out in regulation.
The Zero Carbon Home standard will be set at Level 5 of the Code for
Sustainable Homes, but the legislation will allow developers to build to Level 4
as long as they offset through the allowable solutions scheme to achieve
Code 5.
Energy efficiency requirements for homes are set in the Building Regulations
2010 and are made under powers in the Building Act 1984. But there are
insufficient powers in the Building Act to introduce off-site allowable solutions,
so the Government will now bring forward enabling powers for this.


  1. As you rightly pointed out, the original targets were ridiculous and the outcome cannot be seen as a surprise. Demanding the impossible may get plenty of media attention, but ultimately makes it hard even to ask for quite reasonable goals.

    I would much rather see the industry work towards an across the board improvement in the quality of our homes (in design, space, energy efficiency and function), so that we as a house owning nation get into the habit of asking for better. So long as we boil it down to targets, and restrictions and self-imposed limitations, we'll always get housing stock that's built to the minimum standard rather than the highest.

  2. AnonymousJune 04, 2014

    Self-renovators could get on and repair or retrofit older properties, but not if a fifth of the materials and labour costs go back to the government in the form of tax (VAT).
    If you are on an average income, this overhead is unaffordable.
    Remind me, who was the politician who said by 2016 all new housing will be zero carbon? What about the remaining 25 million leaky homes?
    If the SNP promise to scrap VAT on retrofitting and repair work, I might vote for them!