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Clean heat: Is UK new housing policy falling short?

Government plans to fund 200,000 new homes in English garden towns shows a lack of joined up Whitehall thinking on boosting use of innovative, heating technologies, a policy specialist argues

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it has set aside £9m in new funding to support planning and technical studies in order to establish 200,000 homes in new garden town and village projects in England.

Government added that it did not wish however to impose a set of specific design principles, such as heating approaches, on each of the proposed garden community projects that are intended to be locally led and planned. Individual authorities were therefore responsible for considering specific types of heating systems of innovations.

Richard Lowes, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter who specialises in sustainable heating and gas policy, was critical of the lack of joined up thinking across different government departments to meet the Clean Growth Strategy’s objectives.

Citing the commitments to build new homes within garden communities, Mr Lowes said that the focus could have been linked to a wider heating strategy, for example, by looking at trialling district heating projects that make use of solar thermal technology.

He added, “It is a shame they are not considering this.”

Mr Lowes argued said that Part L of the Building Regulations continued to be used to define required standards of energy efficiency in a home and its systems. However, he said challenges facing larger developers meant there was a greater focus on implementing more short-term, albeit cost-effective systems.

Questions were also raised on the existing limited capability of local authorities to assess or check energy efficiency and performance in specific areas.

He said that smaller, more specialist developers may in some cases be better suited to creating housing projects using more alternative approaches to building services functions.

Some form of review of Part L of the UK’S Building Regulations were announced as part of the government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which seeks to transform the UK into a low carbon economy over the next 30 years.

Mr Lowes said that it was unknown what the focus of the review would be and what scope for change may be considered. 

Mr Lowes added that potential amendments that could be considered under the review could include a ban on oil heating in off-grid properties. This potential change has already been introduced in a number of other countries.

He said, “It ultimately depends how far government want to go towards obtaining zero carbon homes.”

Thermal efficiency and the required standards for determining how air tight buildings are other areas that could be considered as part of the review.

Government policy

From a wider government policy perspective, Mr Lowes argued that there has been limited changes to UK heating policy since it was made mandatory from 2005 onwards for all new or replacement gas boilers to be condensing models.

He said that the recent introduction of Boiler plus efficiency standards in 2018 was more of an amendment to existing policy, with a first year review presently underway to look at the outcomes of the project over the last 12 months.

Mr Lowes added, “BoilerPlus is a step in the right direction to meet carbon targets for 2050, but it is still miles away from what is needed.”

He added that the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has shown a big commitment form government to try and support new approaches to building services. However, Mr Lowes said this focus has largely been for non-domestic uses.

The government has meanwhile said it reviewing standards concerning domestic energy efficiency requirements where “cost-effective, safe and practical” to do so, with a consultation intended to run later this year.

Whitehall said it is also committed to introduce £2.5bn of investment in low carbon innovation between 2015 and 2021.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said, “Homes built in England have increased in efficiency by over 30 per cent since 2010. As well as cutting carbon emissions to tackle the threat of climate change, our efforts have put an average of £200 a year back into the pockets of families.”

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