Image: Nottingham City Council.

National policy decisions have created “confusion and uncertainty” over what powers exist at a local level to boost the sustainability of new build housing according to a trio of council leaders, backed by the UK Green Building Council.

Representatives of Leeds and Peterborough City Councils were joined by the Mayor of Liverpool in an open letter to the minister of state for housing and planning, Dominic Raab, and energy and clean growth minister, Claire Perry.

The signatories argue that the changing national policy context for low carbon housing has led to “confusion on the extent of our powers in this area, which requires clarification.”

According UK GBC, the confusion has arisen as a result of a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) in March 2015, which made clear that local authorities would still be able to require energy performance standards higher than Building Regulations up to the equivalent of Code for Sustainable Homes level 4 ‘until commencement of amendments to the Planning & Energy Act 2008’.

While these amendments were never commenced, UKGBC’s public affairs and policy specialist Jenny Holland has said more clarity is required.

“We know through our extensive discussions with local authorities that many currently, and mistakenly, believe that they cannot require any standards beyond minimum Building Regulations,” she said.

“However, for absolute clarity, UKGBC believes that a new WMS is needed which sets out the position once and for all.”

On a policy level, the situation will not have been aided by the changes to national policy that have suggested a move away from sustainability in the housing sector.

Such changes are evidenced by the scrapping of zero carbon homes policy in 2015, which would have required all new dwellings from 2016 to generate as much energy on-site, through renewable sources like solar, as they would use in heating, hot water, lighting and ventilation.

This would have been supported by tighter energy efficiency standards and allowances for housebuilders to deliver equivalent carbon savings off site. However, it was scrapped just months before the policy was due to come into effect over government fears the measures would limit developers ability to build.

Housebuilders had been preparing from the policy introduction for almost a decade since it was first brought forward by Gordon Brown in 2006.

Since then, the national policy landscape for renewable and sustainability technologies in new build homes has failed to materialise, with building regulation updates failing to make up for the loss of zero carbon homes.

“Not only allowed, but to be encouraged”

Councillors Judith Blake of Leeds, John Holdich of Peterborough, Mayor Joe Anderson and John Alker, director of policy & places at the UK Green Building Council, have now claimed that this has led to confusion over what powers local authorities have to take on their own.

Cllr Judith Blake CBE, chair of Core Cities UK, co-chair of UK100 and leader of Leeds City Council said: “We strongly believe in the ability of cities to take a leadership position on climate change, and in doing so support central government’s commitments to the Paris Agreement.

“However, this requires clarity from MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] that driving higher standards of energy performance from new housing through the planning system is not only allowed, but to be encouraged.”

The letter therefore proposes that the existing wording within the National Planning Policy Framework be changed as part of a current consultation on a revised draft. This would remove a requirement for local authorities to reflect government policy for national technical standards, allowing them to act in the absence of national policy promoting sustainability in the new build sector.

The letter also calls for clarity from MHCLG that driving higher standards of energy performance from new housing through the planning system is encouraged rather than prohibited.

Alker said: “We need to deliver 300,000 new homes a year to tackle the country’s housing crisis, but cannot compromise quality in the race for quantity. High quality should include low and zero carbon design that can deliver low energy bills and good air quality for householders.

“At a time of devolution and city leadership on climate change and sustainability, it seems perverse to artificially stifle the ambition of local authorities, who are working together to move forward collectively and consistently.”

Despite this confusion, local authorities have become the ‘leading lights’ of UK solar deployment according to a recent report by the Solar Trade Association, which also called for better national policy to support domestic and community solar and “the great ambitions of local government to use solar to tackle fuel poverty”.