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Why the Infrastructure Bill is a step backwards for new homes


When I first started working for WWF back in 2008 it really was an exciting time to be involved in shaping policies and in particular for me, on creating sustainable new homes – zero carbon homes.

Wood burning stove © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon Wood burning stove © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

New homes that would be warmer and more energy efficient; that would be have cheaper energy bills for those living in them; and that would have a lower impact on our environment in both the building and the running of them. Learning about all the innovative things that could be done and seeing people from across different sections of the house building sector come together was inspiring.

Since then we have seen consistent weakening, by Government, of the zero-carbon standard – recommended by industry experts – for new homes. The cumulative culmination of this weakening is now clearly seen in the Infrastructure Bill now making its way through the House of Commons.

The Infrastructure Bill is a huge Bill covering a great many areas, one of which is zero-carbon homes, which in truth will no longer be zero-carbon. In its current form, this Bill will deliver a level of carbon emission reduction much lower than recommended by industry experts back in 2010 with no real justification for doing so. In fact, in setting a lower standard the Government is foregoing the huge benefits to the UK economy from supporting a world class green building sector creating growth and exports, from reduced natural gas imports and lower energy bills resulting in higher expendable family income.

An expensive luxury?

Some have argued that higher building standards that reduce carbon emissions are too expensive. This ignores the fact that the costs of achieving the recommended level of compliance has halved since 2011 and is expected to fall even further by 2020 when most homes would actually be built to these standards. This argument also overlooks the significant savings on energy bills that people living in these homes would experience. The annual bill for a family living in a zero-carbon three-bed semi-detached house would be £1,220 less than for a Victorian home. That is quite a difference!

Solar panels, Cumbria © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon Solar panels, Cumbria © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

Small – not so beautiful after all

Homes are rarely built in isolation, most new homes are built in packages by developers in groups of 6 to 600 but the same building regulations applied. So we were dismayed that at the beginning of the Summer the Government announced that it proposed to exempt “small sites” from having to meet even the weakened zero-carbon homes standard.

In November, Government confirmed in a consultation that their preferred option would be for small sites to be defined as those of 10 units or less.
This has the potential to create two levels of building standards with people buying homes on smaller sites subjected to a lower standard of home with higher energy bills. The framework of the zero-carbon homes policy was specifically designed to enable the costs of meeting the full standard to be reduced for sites that are subject to physical constraints such as size of site.
To put this exemption in context, the UK Green Building Council has estimated that it could effect 20% of all new homes built in the UK.

Housing insulation © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon Housing insulation © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

What needs to happen next

Our homes and other buildings currently account for 37% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve always believed in the need to reduce emissions from our homes in order to help in the fight to tackle dangerous climate change.

As with the quality of the environment one generation passes to another, the same could be said of its homes. Driving higher standards in newly built homes is not only the most obvious place to start but also the most cost-effective ensuring we don’t need to go back at a later date to improve them. We need to get this right at the start as it is always much cheaper to build sustainability and energy efficiency into homes from the start than to try and retrofit them later.

Biomass chips are sustainably sourced eucalyptus chips © Michele Depraz / WWF-CanonBiomass chips are sustainably sourced eucalyptus chips © Michele Depraz / WWF-Canon

We need to see the Government commit, long-term, to the zero-carbon homes policy and it can start by:

  • Restoring the previously agreed on-site carbon compliance standard for new homes; and
  • Allowing no exemptions to the definition of zero-carbon homes.

For more detail on the Infrastructure Bill and Zero Carbon Homes read our joint briefing with UK Green Building Council, Association for the Conservation of Energy, Energy Saving Trust and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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