Do Local Authorities Really Want Sustainable Construction Powers?

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National planning policy and building regulations have undergone considerable reform in recent years. The latest incarnation is embodied in the Housing Standards Review, (HSR) published in 2014. The HSR sought to consolidate the plethora of standards into national building regulations whilst making it harder to local authorities (LAs) to introduce standards that supplement these national regulations in response to local needs or priorities. One area where local powers have been significantly curtailed by the HSR is in the sustainability and energy efficiency of homes.

Since the publication of Building A Greener Future and the Supplement to the Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change in 2007, LAs have been able to set local standards on building sustainability to reflect local needs and priorities. Although options are provided in the HSR for local standard setting in a number of areas to supplement the revamped building regulations, this isn’t one of those. The extent to which sustainable construction targets can be set locally has thus been significantly curtailed. The response was predictably fierce. The Association for the Conservation for Energy remarked on the ‘political naivety’ and ‘shortsightedness’ associated with the decision. A report of the Environmental Audit Committee from November 2013 suggests that ‘this decision bulldozes local choice in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach designed to benefit developers who want to build homes on the cheap’.

Yet what do local authorities themselves think? The evidence actually points towards local authorities being against the idea of local standard setting in the area of energy-efficiency in buildings.

When asked in the HSR consultation whether sustainable construction standards should be incorporated into National Building Regulations (thus restricting local choice) an overwhelming number of local authorities responded in favor (46 of 69 responses). When asked their views on whether local authorities should have the powers to set ‘Merton Rule’ type policies (which mandate the minimum renewable energy use in a building) ‘a number of local planning authorities are also in favour of a review [of the Merton Rule type policies], who do not see a role for planning in decisions about the energy performance of houses’.

What’s more, as part of my on-going research into this area I have surveyed all local English local authorities. Only 50% have embraced the standard setting powers that they have had up until the HSR, and even then there are serious concerns over whether those local standards are being enforced thoroughly.

An obvious question that arises from this is why? Why do local authorities propose a national Building Regulations led approach to sustainable construction standards? In the course of my research two factors have been raised.

First, there are considerable costs associated with rewriting Local Plans and many local authorities feel that the national debate on sustainable construction is in such flux that to expend resources on incorporating local standards is risky given that the national policy framework may change mid-way through, requiring a new local plan. This has happened in Harrogate Borough Council which, having introduced stringent sustainability standards into their local plan in 2009, was forced to begin the process anew after technical changes published in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework undermined their whole plan.

Second, many local authorities realise that although local authorities are ideally placed to raise the sustainability of buildings. However, they are subject to strong external pressures from developers that prioritise growth over sustainability and lack the necessary internal capacity (whether in terms of expertise, institutional norms, pro-environment policy networks or dominant discourse favouring ecologism) to overcome these forces. On that basis many consider any local powers a waste, because they can’t be fully exploited.

We must not therefore be alarmist when we look at the HSR and its curtailment of local powers. It is by no means perfect; the extent to which the sustainability and environmental standards of homes can be raised in the future is largely down to how the Building Regulations are going to be reformed and there are doubts that it will go far enough in this regard. Nevertheless, the evidence points towards local authorities favouring a national approach. We should listen to and respect this view, and try to understand why they think like this at all. Only then can we hope to do anything about it.

2014-03-11 18.43.34Max Lempriere is a third year PhD student in POLSIS at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.

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