Ground 56%

The government has abandoned its sustainable homes policy – by redefining zero.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 26th November 2010

What does zero look like to you? Is it:

a. 0


b: 56%?

If the answer is a, you are an ordinary mortal. If the answer is b, you are a government minister, possessed of supernatural mathematical powers.

In July, housing minister Grant Shapps made what seemed to be a crystal clear commitment:

“This government are committed to ensuring that all new homes post-2016 can be zero-carbon.”

You might have twigged by now that what seems to be crystal clear and what is crystal clear are, in the kaleidoscopic world of Coalition politics, not quite the same thing. Slipped into the same statement was the following killer caveat:

“This will involve a flexible approach.”

“Flexible”, as you might also be aware, is a key Coalition term, a bit like “partnership” was under New Labour. It’s one of those sachets of lexicographical magic dust which, sprinkled over words or numbers, turns them into whatever you want them to be. The “flexible” spell is so powerful that, in just four months, it has transmuted that unreconstructed, old-fashioned figure 0 into a thoroughly modern, fit-for-purpose 56%.

There was another magic word in Shapps’s statement: “Realistic.” He would, he announced, commission work from a body called (plainly enough you might think) Zero-Carbon Hub, to work out how new homes could be built to zero-carbon standards in a “realistic” fashion. Zero-Carbon Hub has just published its consultation document, in which it explains that a “zero-carbon home” is one that has cut its emissions by as little as 44% compared with the 2006 building regulations.

It explains that zero had previously been defined by the government as 30% – meaning that new homes would have to cut their emissions by 70% against 2006 levels. But the government had recognised that reaching this variety of zero

“is particularly challenging and may not be achievable in all cases.”

So, rather than redefining his target as “56%-carbon homes”, Shapps has taken the more mathematically-challenging, though politically-effective, option of redefining zero.

It’s part of a general roll-back of inconvenient words and numbers which have been troubling ministers throughout this government (especially the Chancellor). Just as the so-called Zero-Carbon Hub was publishing its consultation yesterday, Shapps was also cancelling another green housing commitment. In March, the last government published a draft set of building regulations for homes built with the help of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). The HCA exists to get more houses built in England, and to “ensure high standards of design and to embed sustainability”. Or it did.

The regulations the last government proposed were not particularly onerous (reaching level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes) but, as it explained, they were designed to deliver

“quality homes which are seen to be desirable and better to live in by residents, with a lower carbon footprint and lower energy costs.”

Now, without consultation or public debate, Shapps has scrapped this commitment. Yesterday his ministry announced this decision with a press release titled

“We’re lifting burdens from the backs of builders”

The second half of the title must have got lost in the editing process – “and dumping them on the backs of householders”.

Shapps maintains (without providing any reasoning to justify it) that this deregulation will save an implausible £8,000 per home for house-builders. But abandoning even the modest energy-efficiency standards proposed by the last government will load future costs on householders, as the crappy homes they’ll have to live in will cost a fortune to keep warm.

The Home Builders’ Federation is, of course, delighted because its members will now be able to foist any old rubbish onto a captive market. But the deregulation is unlikely to do anything to unlock the moribund industry, which is failing to build the homes we need for reasons which have nothing (that means 0%) to do with energy regulations.

In the next roll-back, Shapps will doubtless announce that a cardboard box represents the latest in zero-carbon home technology. That seems to be the way government housing policy is going, and the only option that increasing numbers of people ill-served by both government and industry are likely to have.