Getting zero done, too!

With a new government settling in, and another Queen’s Speech to digest, Hywel Davies looks forward to the year(s) ahead

We live in unusual times in the UK. For the first time in more than a decade, we have a government with a clear majority and a full parliamentary term (although the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 looks set to be repealed). We also have a Prime Minister with a clear mandate, and a new and unique electoral map of the UK.

Politically, the top priority is to ‘get Brexit done’, closely followed by commitments to improve the NHS and deliver better public services. There is also the need to protect the environment, deliver net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and implement Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations.

Although it did not feature highly in election coverage, one of the six headline pledges of the Conservative manifesto is ‘reaching net zero by 2050 with investment in clean-energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution’. The new government may have seized the political momentum, but it knows it still faces a real and present challenge in Extinction Rebellion, and continued calls to move further and faster on climate change.

Its manifesto acknowledged those who ‘risk their savings and their future by becoming entrepreneurs’, recognising ‘they invent the new goods and services that improve our lives. From decarbonisation to expanding the frontiers of artificial intelligence, they are tackling some of the great challenges of our time’.

Many respondents will be objecting unequivocally to limits on local energy requirements

‘Decarbonisation’ is, indeed, one of the great challenges of our time, and the briefing on the Queen’s Speech promises that action on emissions is an ‘absolute priority’.

The Environment Bill and National Infrastructure Strategy will address emissions targets, so it’s astonishing that the new government can intend to defer tackling this challenge until well into 2021 – yet this is what the consultation on the proposed Future Homes Standard (FHS), issued by the previous government, is suggesting. It says research for the new standard is not due to begin until mid-2021. This is absurd, and is inconsistent with the manifesto commitments and the UK hosting the Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow next year, as well as with the commitment to ‘world-leading standards of energy efficiency by 2025’.

It is also inconsistent with the manifesto promise to ‘invest in Britain’s people’. This says: ‘Our plan to deliver clean energy and a carbon-neutral future means new kinds of jobs in new industries. Our departure from the EU means we can develop forward-looking regulations to ensure we are first in line to develop and benefit from the technologies of the future.’

If the ambition to deliver clean energy and carbon neutrality is serious, we must start developing the FHS – and the products, skills and supply chains to deliver it in 200,000 or more new homes a year – now, not in a couple of years’ time.

In ‘Fighting climate change and protecting the environment’, the manifesto commits to:

  • Delivering on our target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
  • Decarbonisation schemes
  • Electric vehicle infrastructure, including a national plug-in clean energy network
  • Two million new jobs in clean growth
  • £9.2bn investment in energy efficiency to lower fuel bills in homes, schools and hospitals.

These are all relevant to CIBSE. We need more skilled people to deliver these goals, which requires investment, clear demand for those skills, a stable business environment and a reliable, forward outlook for investors. This government must give businesses clarity and confidence in its plans, then let them get on and get it done. Getting the FHS started right away is key to this.

The manifesto commits to ‘ask every community to decide on its own design standards for new development, allowing residents a greater say on the style and design of development in their area, with local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture’. Really? Local people to determine what houses look like? The FHS consultation suggests they should have no say in how energy efficient it is, beyond the bare legal minimum determined nationally by Building Regulations. The London Plan has driven innovation by setting local standards. Many respondents to the FHS consultation will be objecting unequivocally to limits on local energy requirements (see page 18).

The evidence of the performance gap between design aspiration and what gets built is clear-cut. If we want zero-emissions homes, this quality failure must be addressed. It underlines the need for ‘strengthening enforcement and sanctions to deter non-compliance’ with Building Regulations, promised as part of the measures to improve building safety.

If we are serious about tackling climate change and meeting our net-zero emissions target, we must get on with a FHS for 200,000 homes a year to 2025.

Dr Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE