This opinion piece was originally published on the Futurebuild website.

It is pretty well universally acknowledged by sustainability professionals that Government proposals for the Future Homes and Buildings Standard (FHS) – the next generation of building regulations, released for consultation on 13 December – are insufficient to meet our climate targets, to reduce pressure on the grid, or to ensure that residents can live in comfort with affordable energy bills.

It’s now vital that we demonstrate to this Government, and the next, that we can do better, and indeed that it makes practical and economic good sense.

As organisations who have been pioneering net-zero carbon communities for most of this century, Bioregional and the Good Homes Alliance convened a group of fellow experts, including LETI, the TCPA, and UK Green Building Council, to draw out clear proposals, supported by evidence, in response.

We have published these recommendations in an open letter to the Secretary of State for levelling up, housing, and communities, Michael Gove, which we invite your organisation to support. The property industry – and especially housebuilders who are committed to creating a sustainable built environment – must unite around the need for a more ambitious FHS, and we hope that these practical proposals will inform your response to the FHS consultation, which closes on 6 March – by sheer coincidence, the second day of Futurebuild.

So how did we end up in this situation? And what’s wrong with the proposals?

We are in this situation because change is difficult. We have to recognise that we are involved in a change management process, and perhaps the most important element of that is people and their differing experiences, values, and incentives. Embracing the new technology, skills, and systems that will allow us to phase out fossil fuels and become more resource-efficient is a massive cultural change. Those of us who pioneer net-zero homes need to talk with the mainstream of the sector – to share know-how, to hear the sector’s and government’s valid concerns, and to problem-solve together. This opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other is one of the reasons why Futurebuild is such an essential event, and is also why I joined the Future Homes Hub (FHH) as a board director last year.

The FHH ‘Ready for Zero’ task force, which was set up to help the sector navigate this change and included most of the volume housebuilders and sector experts – did some exceptional work to develop and model five ‘contender specifications’ for the FHS, and it is hugely disappointing that government chose to bring forward the least ambitious of these.

We anticipated that Government would pick the middle option, contender specification 3, which would have been a positive next step. But ideology got in the way. Sector spokespeople pushed back last September to ask Rishi Sunak not to scrap the FHS in his bonfire of net-zero plans, so thank goodness for that.

The Government claims, without evidence, that higher standards will increase costs and so limit housing supply, but this is simply not the case.

But then, given this Government’s ideological aversion to net zero, it wasn’t difficult for a few voices in the sector to argue that change was too hard, and, voila! The two weakest options are what we got. The Government claims, without evidence, that higher standards will increase costs and so limit housing supply, but this is simply not the case. Any additional costs will fall as net-zero homes become standard and will be absorbed into land prices, rather than lead to higher house prices.

So, we need to redouble our efforts to work together through this cultural change, and that is one of the things that we have asked for in our letter. We know that many developers are leading the way. In one of Bioregional’s Futurebuild sessions, on the Building stage on 6 March, we will hear how Landsec U+I, Socius, and Cala Homes are going beyond national standards.

Of course, there are welcome elements to the FHS proposals. It’s good news that gas boilers are being phased out, that integrated renewables are proposed for one of the FHS options, and that energy efficiency standards are being introduced for homes converted from offices and other buildings. It’s great that, at last, a replacement for SAP is proposed in the form of the Home Energy Model, the subject of a separate consultation that also closes on 6 March.

But how can the Government seriously propose FHS Option 2, the least ambitious proposal, when it will mean energy bills going up by £600-700 per year above the current Part L 2021?

For these reasons, we recommend adopting Option 1 of the FHS in 2025, if ministers can address some immediate concerns that we have set out in our letter.

We then call for a higher standard to follow, perhaps in 2028, that would regulate embodied carbon and improve building fabric and ventilation. This could be launched in 2024 as a national voluntary standard, ahead of its full adoption. This would respond to developers’ concerns that a proliferation of local planning policies holds back the delivery of new homes, while still allowing local authorities to set higher standards which are in line with achieving the carbon emission reductions needed locally in their local plans, if they are shown to be viable.

This is something close to our heart at Bioregional. We are now engaged in an Innovate UK-funded project to develop the next iteration of a net-zero spatial modelling tool that enables local authorities to accommodate new homes and infrastructure in the least carbon-intensive way possible. We are delighted that DLUHC Chief Planner Joanna Averley will join us on 5 March at our session on Futurebuild’s Sustainable Infrastructure stage to discuss this.

So please, join our campaign, sign our letter to Government by 29 February, and submit your own response to the consultation. And, come and see us at Futurebuild!

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Sue Riddlestone 2019

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Sue Riddlestone OBE
Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Bioregional

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