The government's productivity plan undoes years of good work

on 15 July, 2015

The wider energy efficiency industry can only be confused by the recent actions of the government, particularly given that its removal of the 2016 zero carbon homes target might have zero effect on the ‘productivity’ it hopes to see resulting from its latest plan.

Following the demise of the Code for Sustainable Homes, and ECO and GDHIF languishing on death row, the coup de grace for an industry which has spent years investing and improving building technologies in preparation for next year came buried in the bowels on page 46 of last week’s ‘Fixing the Foundations’ document from the Treasury.

Tying in with the government’s general deregulation approach, its avowed aim was “to reduce net regulation on housebuilders” as part of the productivity plan George Osborne has published to encourage them to build on more sites, including brownfield – in itself a laudable goal.

However, there is no evidence or explanation given of how removing a target that would produce energy efficient homes for their entire lifespan, thanks to insulation and other measures necessary for ‘zero’ carbon, will increase productivity in terms of housebuilding.

You could be forgiven for thinking it is more of a sign that the energy efficiency agenda for new or existing homes is less important to the government now it has found itself fully in charge rather than governing in coalition - despite its manifesto pledge to insulate a million homes over this Parliament.

A cynic reading the Treasury document might say this administration is more interested in appeasing the housebuilding industry and embarking on projects to find new sources of energy.

I struggle with the notion that making homes more energy efficient can be seen as a barrier to productivity, or in any shape or form a hindrance to home ownership, but this is the only conclusion you can take from ‘fixing the foundations’, given the lack of any clear evidence to support the move. To suggest that scrapping zero carbon will galvanise the house building industry into a new surge of productivity appears fanciful at best.

By contrast, why couldn’t we look instead at incentivising housebuilders to make energy efficiency a selling point for their homes? This would begin to combat the lack of awareness among buyers of its importance, both to their pocket and in terms of wider environmental benefits. From the government’s standpoint, increases in thermal efficiency carry a lot of productivity benefits, not least the fact that most insulation used is manufactured in the UK.

The PU/PIR insulation industry, which the British Rigid Urethane Foam Manufacturers' Association (BRUFMA) represents, has spent millions on research and development towards the introduction of zero carbon in both domestic and non-domestic buildings. We were – and still are – ready to meet the demands, however this volte-face is another example of the government moving the goalposts on energy efficiency policy which makes forward planning for our industry extremely problematic.

Such changes in policy are not necessarily a recent phenomenon, but are characteristic of a lack of long term planning. This is needed if energy efficiency is to be treated as an infrastructure priority, and somehow insulated from short term policy moves. In fact I would go so far as to say if we are even going to have a workable energy efficiency agenda, it needs to be completely depoliticised.

The only way to sensibly look at the long-term goals is over three, four, five administrations, given that the current pattern of five-year reinventions is serving only to set us back in the international pecking order on carbon reductions. However, whether we will also opt out from European targets on that front remains to be seen.

The case for investing in fabric efficiency in new and existing buildings is compelling, has been well made and is widely accepted, all of which adds to the frustration surrounding why so much of the good work that has been done over recent years appears not to carry much weight in Whitehall.

Making our homes and buildings more energy efficient reaps economic and social benefits that more than justify the investments, and insulation once fitted is there forever; the gift that keeps on giving.

BRUFMA stands ready, willing and able to make a strong case for insulating the fabric of new and existing buildings, and we call upon the UK government to talk to us and other interested parties. We can make the most of the opportunity to create a built environment that is energy efficient, to the benefit of UK manufacturing and therefore productivity, and future-proof our building stock. If zero carbon truly is no more, let’s work together to deliver a robust and deliverable alternative.

Chris Hall is chief executive of BRUFMA.

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