Housing and Planning Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:45 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Lords, Lord Stunell, Lord Krebs and Lord Kennedy, for speaking to this amendment. We share a common goal of wanting all new homes to be very energy efficient. I wrote to the House last week setting out the Government’s intentions on this matter.

Over the previous Parliament, we significantly strengthened the energy performance standards for new homes—a 30% improvement on the requirements before 2010. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Stunell OBE and Lord Foster of Bath, for their excellent work as Building Regulations Ministers in the coalition Government in delivering significant improvements in standards for new homes. New homes built to this standard are very energy efficient. They have A-rated condensing boilers, double-glazed windows with low-energy glass, and high levels of insulation and airtightness in their construction. These standards are reducing energy bills by an average of £200 annually for a new home and saving carbon, compared to standards before 2010.

The most recent changes to the standards came only in April 2014, and we think it is right to give the housebuilding industry breathing space to build these highly energy-efficient homes before making further changes. There are also concerns that making homes even more energy efficient and airtight could contribute to the risk of overheating in new homes. The Committee on Climate Change, which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, referred to, raised this in a report published in June last year. This is another reason to let the recent changes bed in and to allow time for a better understanding of the overheating issues raised in the report.

It is also recognised that the latest standards have pushed the fabric energy performance of homes to the point where further increases may result only in marginal energy efficiency returns. To meet the higher standards, housebuilders would need to consider further costly technical solutions for providing heat and power to the home—for example, photovoltaic panels, solar hot water systems, and air or ground source heat pumps.

However, we are not ruling out further improvements to standards. We know that they need to be kept under regular review, and we are committed to doing this and to introducing any cost-effective improvements to the standards. This review will include meeting our obligation in the energy performance of buildings directive to undertake a cost-optimal assessment of our energy efficiency standards. It will involve seeking evidence on the costs of energy efficiency measures and the benefits in terms of fuel bill savings and carbon savings. Current standards will be assessed against these to see whether they are cost optimal. If there is room to go further, the directive requires member states to take action to strengthen these standards.

As part of the process, we will seek the expert views of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. We would also welcome evidence from the industry and others. In particular, we would like to receive evidence from the Committee on Climate Change, as well as from noble Lords in this House. We expect work to conclude in the autumn, to give time to reflect on the conclusions, to report to the Commission next year and to consider what needs to be done in any future Building Regulations. We would be happy to keep noble Lords apprised of the progress with the review and its conclusions.

The directive also requires us to introduce nearly zero energy building standards for new public buildings from the end of 2018 and for all new buildings from the end of 2020. We have already transposed the aims and timings of this requirement into the Building Regulations. I hope this reassures your Lordships that we are committed to a review and to introduce nearly zero energy building standards by the end of this Parliament, and therefore that the proposed clause is not needed.

In addition, the proposal does not cover a significant proportion of new homes—flats in high-rise blocks, of which we see so many in London. The carbon compliance level for flats in the proposed clause is based on work undertaken by Zero Carbon Hub for flats in blocks of up to four storeys only. The hub recognised that more work would be needed to develop levels appropriate for high-rise blocks. For instance, the use of photovoltaic panels, which the hub considers the most cost-effective means of meeting the levels proposed in the new clause, is more limited on high-rise blocks because there is proportionately less roof space available per apartment in the block. Any changes to the Building Regulations flowing from the upcoming review will require a full consultation, which will include draft technical guidance on how to meet the changes—guidance that will cover all homes, from detached houses to high-rise flats.

As well as being unsuitable for high-rise flats, it is not prudent to set requirements such as this in primary legislation. If in the light of consultation there needed to be any slight adjustments to requirements, we would not be able to do that without further primary legislation. We also do not need new powers to set energy performance standards in the Building Regulations, as the Building Act 1984 already allows us to do this. We must also remember that the Building Regulations set minimum standards for all homes—big and small—and cover all of England, including areas where homes are much needed but where there might be viability issues.

The Federation of Master Builders has pointed out that increased construction costs to meet higher standards have a greater impact on smaller builders. Higher regulatory standards may also make housing development unviable in some areas. The federation, which represents more than 13,000 small and medium-sized builders, was supportive of last July’s productivity plan announcement on zero-carbon homes, saying at the time:

“Small local builders typically build more bespoke homes, with a strong focus on quality and high standards of energy efficiency. Yet over recent years it has been these smaller firms which have been hit disproportionately hard by the rapid pace of change. This burdensome regulation came at a time when SME house builders were beginning to recover and build more new homes which is crucial if we want to keep pace with the demand for new housing. The Government is therefore right to remove the unnecessary zero carbon standards which threatened to perpetuate the housing crisis … There has been an increasing feeling that the standards were in danger of running ahead of the industry’s understanding and ability to deliver”.

We therefore need to consider whether it is realistic for the majority of builders to deliver even higher standards without unduly affecting site viability or housing delivery.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, asked about costs and prices in Hertfordshire. I cannot provide those figures at this point, but I have some more general information, which is that construction costs nationally for new homes have increased by just over 2% a year over the past five years. Land prices have risen by about 7%, including inflation. Those increases in land prices and construction costs, which fall on housebuilders, have not been converted by increased house prices, which have risen by only 4%, so there is a potential viability gap. Where land prices have not risen or land values are very low to begin with, landowners are less likely to be willing to release land if housebuilders have to reduce the price that they can pay for land in order to offset costs.

Volatility is another factor. There is significant regional variation in land costs for residential development, and prices can be volatile at local level, as we know. That volatility can increase the risk to housebuilders.

Therefore, although I appreciate the intention behind the new clause, I hope that I have reassured noble Lords that it is unnecessary, given that the Government are absolutely committed to completing a review of standards. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.