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UK sustainable building – a short recent history

by Mel Starrs on December 11, 2010

in Policy Landscape

Via Twitter last week I got caught up in a discussion with a Russian contact on what the UK has in place legislatively with regards to ‘green’ building. I hunted out some of my BREEAM AP revision notes and emailed them through to him. It then occurred to me it might make a useful blog post, especially as a placeholder for where we are today. In truth the following list is more where we were 6 months ago – the coalition government have dismantled some of these and others are under review. Where I can, I have noted the changes. I haven’t mentioned Building Regulations, which I have covered extensively elsewhere on the blog.

Of course, we await the Localism Bill which also may or may not affect some of these…

Policy Review

Key current and recent policy and planning drivers for ‘green building’ affecting the UK are outlined below.

Government Policy

Climate Change Act (2008)

Climate change act.jpg

The UK government has accepted that significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be required to meet the challenge of climate change, and go significantly beyond their Kyoto Protocol commitments.

The Climate Change Act 2008 set legally binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 80 per cent between 1990 and 2050. The act aims to help the transition towards a low-carbon economy in the UK and demonstrates strong UK leadership internationally. There is the ability within the act to alter this 80% target, which I hadn’t realised until I looked at it again just now.

The act also established the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which is an independent body to:

  • advise the government on setting carbon budgets
  • report to Parliament on the progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions

The CCC’s inaugural report, ‘Building a Low-carbon Economy: the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change’ was published on 1 December 2008. The report contained the CCC’s recommendations on the 2050 emissions reduction target and advised on the levels of the UK’s first three legally binding carbon budgets for 2008-2022.

Meeting an 80% target would be challenging but feasible based on a range of options for reducing emissions including (for buildings):

  • Energy efficiency improvement in buildings and industry
    • (e.g. loft and cavity wall insulation, use of more efficient appliances, turning appliances off and using less air conditioning), which will be particularly important for reducing emissions in the period to 2020.
  • Decarbonisation of the power sector
    • starting now and continuing through the 2020s, based on replacing existing conventional fossil fuel fired plant with renewable technologies (e.g. wind, tidal), nuclear new build and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
  • Heat sector decarbonisation
    • through increased use of biomass in boilers and CHP, air exchange and ground source heat pumps, and modern electric storage heating.

More recently (7/12/10) the CCC proposed the fourth carbon budget, covering the period 2023-27, as required under Section 4 of the Climate Change Act; the Government will propose draft legislation for the fourth budget in Spring 2011. From now on budget advice reports will be delivered every five years (i.e. advice on the fifth carbon budget, covering the period 2028-2032, will be provided in 2015). Key recommendations are:

  • An Indicative 2030 target to reduce emissions by 60% relative to 1990 levels (46% relative to 2009 levels)
  • A Domestic Action fourth carbon budget of 1950 MtCO2e to be legislated in the first instance and to be achieved
    on a gross basis (i.e. without credit purchase).
  • A Global Offer budget of 1800 MtCO2e indicating a minimum UK contribution to a future global deal to be legislated when a global deal for the 2020s is agreed.
  • The second and third budgets should be adjusted to reflect the level of ambition in the Intended budget for the non-traded sector, giving an economy-wide reduction of 37% in 2020 relative to 1990.
  • International aviation and shipping should in future be included in carbon budgets.
  • The cost of meeting the Domestic Action and Global Offer budgets is under 1% of GDP.
  • Annual investment requirements through the 2020s are around £16bn.
  • New policies will be required, including fundamental reform of the electricity market.

The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan

UK low transition.jpgIn the Summer 2009 the Government published the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, which plots how the UK will meet the 34 percent cut in emissions on 1990 levels by 2020, set out in the budget. UK emissions of the basket of six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol were 22.0 per cent lower in 2008 than in the base year, down from 779.9 to 608.4 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent.

Transforming the country into a cleaner, greener and more prosperous place to live is at the heart of our economic plans for ‘building Britain’s future’ and ensuring the UK is ready to take advantage of the opportunities ahead.

By 2020:

  • More than 1.2 million people will be in green jobs.
  • 7 million homes will have benefited from whole house makeovers, and more than 1.5 million households will be supported to produce their own clean energy.
  • Around 40 percent of electricity will be from low-carbon sources, from renewables, nuclear and clean coal.
  • We will be importing half the amount of gas that we otherwise would.
  • The average new car will emit 40 percent less carbon than now.

The Transition Plan was claimed to be the most systematic response to climate change of any major developed economy.

Energy White Paper 2007

energy white paper.jpgIn May 2007, the government published the Energy White Paper (EWP) ‘Meeting the Energy Challenge’. The document was originally issued under BIS, but will eventually be transferred to DECC (keeping up at the back, everyone?) It defined a long-term strategic vision for energy policy combining environmental, security of supply, competitiveness and social goals. Much of what was proposed under this paper has moved on significantly in the past 3 years.

The goals of the EWP included:

  • putting the UK on a path to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, with real progress by 2020
  • ensuring that every home is adequately and affordably heated

The EWP emphasised the leadership role that local authorities were expected to play. The role was formalised by the new performance framework and NI186, which has since been dismantled (see below). The EWP also announced the introduction of the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), which is currently also being reviewed and is likely to resurface as an effective carbon tax. The 60% target was quickly superseded by 80% target in Climate Change Act (see above).

Strategy for Sustainable Construction

strategy for sustainable construction.jpgThe Strategy for Sustainable Construction is a joint industry and Government initiative intended to promote leadership and behavioural change, as well as delivering benefits to both the construction industry and the wider economy.

It aims to realise the shared vision of sustainable construction by:

  • Providing clarity to business on the Government’s position by bringing together diverse regulations and initiatives relating to sustainability;
  • Setting and committing to higher standards to help achieve sustainability in specific areas;
  • Making specific commitments by industry and Government to take the sustainable construction agenda forward.

The Strategy is aimed at providing clarity around the existing policy framework and signalling the future direction of Government policy.

Display Energy Certificates

DEC.jpgSince October 2008, Display Energy Certificates must be displayed in all public buildings larger than 1,000 square metres and those provided for social housing.

Display Energy Certificates (DECs) show the actual energy usage of a building, the Operational Rating, and help the public see the energy efficiency of a building. This is based on the energy consumption of the building as recorded by gas, electricity and other meters. The DEC should be clearly displayed at all times and clearly visible to the public.

This requirement is driven by European legislation – the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) – which all member states must adopt. There are moves to have all commercial buildings displaying DEC’s but this would require primary legislation. In the meantime, a voluntary scheme is under consideration.

A recast of the Directive (EPBD2) has now been agreed. The key provisions in the recast are:

  • minimum energy performance requirements to be set for all new and refurbished buildings and compared against requirements calculated in accordance with cost-optimal requirements;
  • energy use of technical building systems to be optimised by setting requirements relating to installation, size etc. Covers heating, hot water, air-conditioning and large ventilation systems;
  • all new buildings developed after 2020 to be nearly zero energy buildings, with an earlier target date of 2018 where the building will be owned and occupied by a public authority;
  • property advertisements to include details of EPC rating;
  • Member States to provide details of the fiscal incentives in place (if any) which could be used to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings;
  • content of EPCs to be improved by making them more specific to a particular building and including more detailed information on the cost-effectiveness of recommendations, along with the steps to be taken to implement those recommendations;
  • DECs to be issued and displayed in buildings larger than 500m² (current threshold is 1,000m²) that are occupied by a public authority and frequently visited by the public. This threshold will fall to 250m² after five years;
  • EPCs to be displayed in commercial premises larger than 500m² that are frequently visited by the public and where one has previously been issued; and
  • a statistically significant percentage of EPCs and ACRs to be checked by independent experts for quality assurance purposes.
  • EPBD2 will be implemented by Member States by 2012–13.

Carbon Reduction Commitment

The Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) was originally a cap and trade scheme, similar to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). It was to provide an incentive to reduce emissions in non-energy intensive sectors, including the public sector. The scheme started in April 2010.

The CRC is mandatory and targets emissions currently not included in the EU ETS or climate change agreements. The scheme includes all organisations whose electricity consumption is greater than 6,000MWh a year. This is equivalent to an annual electricity bill of around £500,000. The CRC covers all energy use such as electricity, gas, fuel and oil except for transport fuels.

In addition to a name change (now known as CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme), in October’s Spending Review the UK Government announced that the CRC will be simplified to reduce the burden on businesses, with the first allowance sales for 2011/12 emissions now taking place in 2012 rather than 2011. Revenue from the sale of CRC allowances, totalling £1 billion a year by 2014/15, will be used to support the public finances, including spending on the environment, rather than recycled to participants.

Considerable dismay was voiced from businesses in the UK who believe this is now a carbon tax rather than the cap and trade scheme they thought they were signing up to.

Planning and building control requirements


planning.pngPlanning policies can have an enormous influence on limiting carbon emissions from new developments. In May 2007 the government published the Planning White Paper, ‘Planning for a Sustainable Future’. This made it clear that local planning authorities have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change.

What the future holds for planning is not yet clear. Perhaps we’ll know more with the launch of the Localism Bill – but we are currently in a state of flux.

Planning Policy Guidance documents (PPG) and their replacements Planning Policy Statements (PPS) offer guidance on planning policy and how the planning system works. We know these are under review, but not what they will be replaced with.

PPS1: Delivering Sustainable Development‘ outlines how local authorities’ planning policies should ensure sustainable development. For example, it states that planning should facilitate and promote sustainable and inclusive patterns of urban and rural development. One way to do this is to ensure that resources are used efficiently.

PPS1: Supplement on Climate Change‘ sets out how planning should help shape places with lower carbon emissions and greater resilience to climate change impacts.

PPS22: Renewable Energy‘ states that regional and local planning documents should contain policies designed to encourage the development of renewable energy resources. It also allows renewable energy targets to be set at regional and subregional levels. PPS22 was the basis of most Merton style rules with regards to targets for renewable energy in terms of either energy or carbon.

The Planning and Energy Act, introduced in 2008, allows local councils to set targets in their areas, including for:

  • on-site renewable energy
  • on-site low carbon electricity
  • energy efficiency standards

The Planning Act was also passed in 2008. This established a new system for approving major infrastructure projects, as well as a feed-in tariff system for small-scale electricity generation. The IPC’s days are numbered and we still await confirmation on the proposed RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive).

Local Authority Requirements

Each council has its own interpretation of PPS1 and PPS22 and may well have a BREEAM rating as a requirement too. I have yet to find a comprehensive list of policies in place or proposed.

Local Performance Framework

For local authorities, the key driver on climate change emissions originated in the Local Government White Paper 2006. This introduced a new performance framework known as the comprehensive area assessment (CAA).

Reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in local areas were measured through national indicator (NI) 186. This related to the “per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the local authority area”. DEFRA stated that it would like NI186 included in all local area agreements (LAA).

Other relevant indicators included:

  • NI 185, which measures the reduction in carbon dioxide from local authority operations
  • NI 187, which measures fuel poverty

Many local authorities have followed the London Borough of Merton’s lead in introducing policies that go beyond the minimum requirements of these statements. These may require new developments to have on-site renewable energy generation or meet a certain level of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Some are now progressing much further than these requirements and are adopting policies that specify carbon-neutral developments.

The framework introduced by the last Government following the 2006 White Paper is now largely being dismantled.

Government has ended the system of Public Service Agreements, set at national level. For the meantime these are replaced by Departmental business plans (Structural Reform Plans). Government has committed to being much less top-down and target-driven than under the previous administration.
Indicators form the NIS (National Indicator Set) continue to be used as part of 2010/11 monitoring of LAAs, but the extent to which Government Offices are still taking an active interest in this process is much diminished.

Eric Pickles announced on 25th June 2010 “We are already abolishing the Audit Commission, have ended Comprehensive Area Assessment, scrapped 4,700 Whitehall (LAA) targets, are dismantling the National Indicator Set and are ready to scale back significantly the plethora of data reporting requirements which cost you time and money”


Looking at the plethora of documents above, the calls for simplification from the coalition are understandable. We are certainly not wanting for legislation in the field. And I’m sure I’ve missed some – if anyone can point out any glaring omissions, I’d be grateful.

What I fear we are facing is a possible policy vacuum, as policies are discarded without any new frameworks in place. Apart from anything else, who has the time to keep up with all this stuff and get on with the day job?