The recent launch of a new report from the Solar Trade Association highlights the wide range of opportunities open to local authorities to support the deployment of renewable energy on their patch.  Many inspirational examples from across the UK are collected together in the report covering initiatives that range from local authorities generating income or saving on energy bills by deploying solar on their own estate, to organising solar group buying schemes for local residents, to regenerating whole areas with low energy retrofits.

Here, we're taking a look at how local authorities are stepping up to ensure that the new homes that get built in their region meet higher levels of energy efficiency than those in the national building regulations.  In the absence of anything from the national government that looks even like the beginnings of a plan, local authorities are using their own powers to make sure that homes built in their area keep energy bills for residents as low as possible and limit carbon dioxide emissions.

The Housing Standards Review in 2015 concluded that the imminent arrival of Zero Carbon Homes (ZCH) into national building regulations meant that local authorities did not need to continue to set their own energy requirements for new homes, and that their powers to impose energy efficiency requirements that exceeded those in the building regulations should be removed.

However, the abrupt cancellation of ZCH by the then chancellor, George Osborne meant that the parliamentary processes needed to remove these powers were never completed.  (For more detail, see this blog). This situation caused real confusion in both the construction industry and local authority planning departments. It is helpful to have such an authoritative document that explains the situation.

The STA report makes it clear that the Local Authorities have indeed retained full planning powers and can set minimum standards for new homes covering energy efficiency, and proportion of renewable or low carbon energy generated in the locality of the development.  That this is the case was confirmed by government minister, Lord Bourn in the Lords.

One exemplar Council in this area highlighted in the report is Milton Keynes. 

Since 2007 Milton Keynes Council has required that all developments of new homes of more than 5 houses have renewable energy on site that provides a minimum of 10% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.  Developments must also either achieve full carbon neutrality or make financial contributions to a carbon offset fund.  It is up the developer to decide whether to meet zero carbon through measures on-site or to simply pay into the fund. 

The fund receives a one off contribution of £200 (index linked from 2005) per tonne of CO2 emitted per year.  These funds were collected by the council and are spent on measures to reduce energy use elsewhere in the existing building stock in the city.

For full details of the current planning requirements, click here.

The planning rules in Milton Keynes resemble the national governments abortive Zero Carbon Homes policy which asked for a minimum fabric efficiency (insulation standards), followed by a carbon compliance level (including renewables), and finally 'Allowable Solutions' to allow the final bit of carbon emissions to be offset by paying into a fund that would be spent on improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings.

The amount collected so far from carbon offsetting payments amounts to £1 million and has funded initiatives such as Milton Keynes boiler cash-back scheme, thousands of cavity and loft insulation measures across the borough and (with Salix finance) heating and lighting upgrades in four schools. 

The level at which the carbon offset payments has been set may now seem low – London, for example, has set its rate at £60 per tonne of emissions over thirty years, equivalent to £1,800 stated in terms of one year emissions – but it should be seen in the context of how far ahead of its time this was back in 2007.

Now Milton Keynes District Council wants to move to more ambitious targets for the energy efficiency of new homes built in the city.  A draft Local Plan was published in 2017 and has now been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for ratification.  It requires developments of new homes of more than ten dwellings to:

  • Exceed the national building regulations for regulated carbon emissions (those from heating, lighting and pumps and fans but excluding plug in appliances) by at least 19%, and then in addition
  • Provide at least 20% of the remaining energy consumption from renewable energy sources located on site or in the near locality of the development

In addition, major developments will be required to achieve CO2 neutrality or pay into a carbon-offset fund similar to the existing scheme.  I have not yet been able to find information on the level at which the payments will be charged.

Where MK led, others have followed.  In 2016, the Mayor of London brought a Zero Carbon Homes policy for developments in London into force with similar design.  It has been reported that the metropolitan mayors in other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham are looking at having Zero Carbon Buildings policies in their framework plans.

Energy efficiency seems to be very low down the priorities of our Westminster government.  Urgent action on climate change simply cannot wait for the bickering about Brexit to end.  Fortunately, as demonstrated by the Leading Lights in the Solar Trade Association publication, our Local Authorities have the powers and in many cases the will to take the lead and ensure that we are building homes fit for the future.