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The Building Regulations: Taking the Next Step Towards Zero Carbon Homes

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As some of you may know from my previous postings, one of my responsibilities in government is the building regulations. So far, so dull, right? On the face of it, you might be forgiven for thinking so, but the building regulations offer a number of key tools and levers to tackle the carbon emissions produced from our buildings. Yesterday, I announced a Government Consultation on the latest proposals for upgrading the building regulations, and they contain a number of key proposals to significantly improve the sustainability of our built environment.

The upgrading of the building regulations happens once every three years. I signed off the most recent upgrade in October 2010, which required a 25% increase in energy efficiency standards for new build homes. We're now consulting on the changes for the next upgrade, most of which are due to come into force in 2013.

So what are the key things you need to know? Well, it's the last stop before Zero Carbon Homes become mandatory. For new buildings, the government has committed to introduce zero carbon standards from 2016 in new homes and 2019 for new non-domestic buildings. The consultation proposes to tighten the carbon dioxide targets for new buildings and introduces a specific energy efficiency target for new homes. The preferred standards proposed by the consultation for new homes could be met with improvements to the building fabric (walls and windows etc), whilst more ambitious standards for non-domestic buildings are likely to require renewable energy generation technologies, like solar panels, integrated into the building itself.

Compliance is an issue I've raised before and keep coming back to. In my conference speech in October, I quoted a recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, showing that not even an exemplar Zero Carbon Development in York was performing as it should, with the homes losing 54% more heat than designed to.

The report concluded that many processes and cultures within the industry and supply chain needed to change if Zero Carbon Homes was to become more than just an empty slogan. I'm keen that doesn't happen, so we are looking at how we might be able to regulate to increase the use of a new quality assurance standard, and I'm challenging different parts of the supply chain (home builders, product manufacturers etc) to come together to develop such a standard in readiness for 2013.

And there are also moves to cut carbon in existing homes and boost the Green Deal. We're doing this through the introduction of "consequential improvements", something Labour "bottled out" of introducing twice. Where homeowners or businesses are carrying out works to their building (an extension, a loft conversion or replacement windows) they would be asked to undertake additional work to improve the energy efficiency of the building at the same time. They will only be obliged to do so if they are eligible for the Green Deal, to ensure that they are not forced to bear the upfront cost, which would be paid for by the savings in their energy bills. This regulatory nudge, coming into force in October 2012, will help boost demand for the Green Deal, whilst also cutting carbon emissions and delivering cheaper energy bills for households.

There are a number of other important measures in there, including some key safety measures on structural design and radon protection. The total package of changes is positive not just for the green agenda, but also for businesses and delivering growth, providing a regulatory benefit of£63.1m.

The consultation will run until 27 April. If we are to ensure that the government delivers on its promise to be the greenest government ever, then I hope Liberal Democrats across the country will respond to the consultation positively, and ensure we can move further down the path to Zero Carbon Homes.