Saturday 30 March 2013

Lessons from the Sustainable Building Regulations in Scotland

What can the Scottish teach the rest of us about Sustainable Building?

Everyone knows that the UK is not building enough new homes.

The reason, evident to all, is that the banks are only approving mortgages for those who will deposit the eternal soul of their first born child into a sub-prime structured casino-investment accumulator on the 2.30 at Newmarket.  ("A dead-cert mate, can't lose").  Oh, and the small matter of a 20% deposit too. 

In a near-perfect example of having your cake and eating it, government exhorts banks to lend more (to get the economy moving), while at the same time regulating that they should increase their reserves (ready for the next banking crash).

It may be obvious to everyone that developers won't build houses if people can't get a mortgage with which to buy them, but the UK government has been insisting that the real problem is "red tape".  

As house builders unveil spectacular improvements in profitability, government continues to work to reduce the cost of regulation, arguing that this will increase the supply of new homes.  In fact the main effect is of course to make more profitable the houses which would have been built anyway.

It is only recently that initiatives have been announced to try to unfreeze the mortgage market, with programmes such as Newbuy starting to have a real effect on demand for new homes.

So, since this Greenest Government Ever came in, we’ve seen it systematically water down regulations intended to ensure that new homes are built to high environmental standards:

This last initiative, under the banner of "the bonfire of the red tape", is (among other things) examining a practice where local authorities require developers in their region to achieve energy performance standards in new buildings that exceed the current Building Regulations.  For example some local authorities require a certain level of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH) or a percentage of the energy used in the buildings to be provided from renewable energy technologies.

Developers dislike these local requirements, because means they have to customize house designs for each area in which they operate.  There is a lack of consistency between Local Authorities, each of which have dreamt up their own requirements – 10% renewable energy, 10% CO2 emissions reduction, CSH level 4 and so on.

It’s worth at this point reflecting on the fact that the Building Regulations are not some sort of gold standard of quality.  They represent a minimum requirement, a baseline, an adequate product.  There’s nothing wrong with local authorities choosing to require higher levels of sustainable construction and energy efficiency in their area.

This government has repeatedly spoken about the importance local people deciding how they want to run things in their area.  Can a compromise be found which allows local decision making while at the same time simplifying things for developers?

Well, as it happens, you don’t have to look very far for the answer.  North of the border, the Scottish government seems to have pulled it off.

Scotland's Miles Better

The Scottish Building Regulations 2011 introduced a new section – Section 7, Sustainability

New homes in Scotland are categorised from Bronze Sustainability to Platinum Sustainability, moving from current building regulations at Bronze and adding tougher and tougher requirements for energy use and a host of other measures such as water consumption, sound proofing, and the provision of space for a home office, recycling bins and wheelchair or baby buggy.  The table above shows how the standards develop for the energy requirements.

The energy requirements display an encouragingly sensible focus on lowering the demand for heat (which must be generated locally) in preference to generating low carbon electricity (which can be done anywhere).  

This system “encourages consistency between planning authorities that use supplementary guidance to promote higher measures of sustainable construction in their area.”  By creating a set of clear national benchmarks, local areas can choose what they want, but from a limited menu, greatly simplifying things for developers.  By linking the standards to the Building Regulations, they are given primacy.

Westminster shouldn’t be too proud to adopt this ready-made solution to the problem of how to give choice to local areas without the proliferation of similar, but slightly different standards.