23 September 2016

I have been supporting Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) this week as they take their Placemaking Plan to Examination in Public. The inspector had asked them to prepare a response on whether their 10 per cent renewables Merton style rule was in alignment with national policy.  

The evidence I put together with the team at B&NES shows that local authorities are on firm ground when writing policy that requires developments to supply a proportion of their energy requirements from onsite renewables. (We’ll know in a few months whether the inspector was convinced by the evidence).

And, in fact, our view is that setting new policies that require higher energy efficiency standards for new homes also remains within the bounds of possibility at present – contrary to popular opinion and the rulings of many planning inspectors. 

The impact of the 2015 Housing Standards Review
 
The 2015 Housings Standards Review set out the government’s intention to remove the ability for local planning policies to require higher than building regulations energy efficiency standards for new domestic developments. 
 
However, the review and subsequent legislation did not affect the ability to set Merton style rules, requiring a proportion of energy used in the development to come from onsite renewables – as set out in the Planning and Energy Act 2008. 

What’s more, the legislation which will remove the ability of local authorities to set higher domestic energy efficiency standards is yet to be enacted, meaning that local authorities can continue to set policy in this area for energy efficiency standards up to the equivalent of Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4. 

Cutting carbon in the absence of a zero carbon policy?
 
The new government has confirmed that it is committed to cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The UK Carbon Plan (HM Gov, 2011) states that if we are to achieve the 2050 carbon target “by 2050 the emissions footprint of our buildings will need to be almost zero” (page 30).

National planning policy requires a local plan to have a positive impact on reducing carbon within the area. Energy requirements for new developments are one of the clearest routes to reducing future carbon emissions in an area. 

The UK 2016 zero carbon homes policy was cancelled, in part, with a view to an EU directive coming into force in 2020 – the government did not perceive a need to have a UK policy in place early.  Brexit is likely to mean that the EU directive will no longer apply and therefore there is no longer any zero carbon homes policy on the horizon.  

The only current commitment from government on this issue is to “keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase the energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established."

This is a very short sighted approach. The homes we build today will still be in use in 2050 when all our housing stock must be almost zero carbon. The English Housing Survey (2015) identified that over three quarters of the current housing stock was built more than 36 years ago.  Homes must be built to run without emitting greenhouse gas emissions, or they will add to the costly retrofit requirements of our existing building stock over the next 30 years.  Retrofitting is more expensive and less efficient than building to high standards in the first instance; and the cost of retrofit falls either to the owner or the tax payer. 
 
A missed opportunity
However, when researching this issue to support B&NES, I reviewed 23 local plans that have recently been found ‘sound’ or ‘adopted’. Of these, just two (Brighton & Hove and East Devon) had successfully included Code Level 4 equivalent energy efficiency requirements and only one (Great Yarmouth) had a Merton rule (which was for non-domestic sites only).  Planning inspectors have had a bonfire of local policies through their examinations, striking out policies for not conforming with national policy – despite this not being the case. 

There are two more promising examples. The London Plan (adopted 2011) is due to start requiring all new major residential development from 1 October 2016 to be zero carbon, with a 35 per cent onsite requirement and options for local offset funds for the remainder. Recent modifications to the plan did not change this policy.

Cornwall Council has recently taken Local Plan policies to examination that require 100 per cent of regulated energy requirements to come from renewable and low carbon sources on or near to the site for two eco-communities . The consultation has just closed on post-hearing amendments and this policy is expected to be adopted without modification. 

London, Cornwall Council, Brighton & Hove City Council, and East Devon District Council should be commended for successfully arguing the case that their policies did align with national policy; others have not managed to convince their inspectors or did not have the courage or resources to pursue the argument.  

As a result, thousands of homes will be built that will emit excess carbon as Local Plans are put in place that rely on a national policy that is currently lacking the necessary teeth to tackle climate change. This is a real missed opportunity. 

We will know in the next few months whether B&NES Council has been successful in making the case for their Merton rule policy. The success of the other authorities listed here shows what can be achieved by local areas, taking their own decisions about the housing they want. At Regen, we are committed to continuing to make planning inspectors and local authorities aware that both Merton style onsite policies and domestic energy efficiency standard (up to Code Level 4) policies remain in conformity with national policy and have a vital role to play in tackling climate change. 

Hazel Williams, Regen SW
Hazel supports local authorities to ensure that their policies, actions and strategies are working towards the development of a low carbon future. To review the national policy evidence that this blog is based on please download the evidence document here.

Author: Hazel Williams

Contact: hwilliams@regensw.co.uk