Local authorities and sustainability standards

Tom Jarman asks what can planning authorities do, and how do we create a dialogue rather than minimum compliance?

Local authorities (LAs) are required to have a local plan which contains their development goals and direction of travel for the next decade and a half.  The local plan contains a housing allocation, including numbers of buildings and areas where development is likely to be granted planning permission.  It will also contain guidance which indicates what needs to be considered to make a development broadly acceptable.  This blog considers the current legal situation, in terms of what LAs can ask developers to do over and above baseline national standards, and what can be done so that a different type of engagement can be created, one which is more productive for all parties than a purely compliance-driven approach.

I was asked recently what role Local Authorities (LAs) have in raising sustainability standards.

Well, the answer is either very simple or very complicated. And as I’m drafting this on a Sunday morning, let’s start with simple.

None. The Housing Standards Review (HSR) (2014) concluded that Building Regulations were the most appropriate point of reference for sustainability standards. The HSR, aligned with the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (2012), created an environment where housebuilders could crack on, unencumbered by a complex planning system distorted by differing local requirements, collectively imposing an onerous, bureaucratic burden and cost.

And there is some truth in this.

Apart from the Code for Sustainable Homes there wasn’t really a consistent standard. I can imagine the frustration of a developer working across more than one planning authority (PA) area that has to approach a similar development in different ways when the motivation for having different local standards isn’t clear, despite being articulated in the same language (carbon, future generations…). Put it another way: There are over 320 PAs in England; do you think it’s a good idea to have as many local but differing sustainability standards?

And we need to understand the position that the construction industry is in, starting with a key point from the Farmer Review, namely the low and declining operating margins within the construction industry: 1.2% in 2013 down from 2.8% in 2010. This creates a cycle of underinvestment in training, development and product performance. One way to maintain a manageable operating margin is to roll out a very similar product over and over again, which is why the preferred model for most developers is Building Regulations. They meet legal requirements, they know absolutely what they are doing and how they are costing it, and the supply chains are very efficiently locked down. Larger developers have some resource to flex this, smaller ones less so. But it explains why we get resistance as soon as we are asking for something that isn’t ‘business as usual’.

So the question isn’t so much what is the role of LAs in raising sustainability standards as, how does this dynamic change?  I have broken my personal view into five main areas:

Greater consistency. LAs are under huge financial pressure, and this concentrates minds on the short term.  It is no surprise that a discussion about build quality takes place at a superficial level – build quality vs number of units – when you have to save 10s of millions, while still maintaining high quality services against rising demand.

But there must be 100s of people all doing a similar job, drafting sustainability standards. This is a waste of resources and it makes us easy to pick off one by one, sustainability statement by sustainability statement.  So what are our underlying requirements? What is our unifying mechanism?  How can we stop reinventing the wheel?

Client responsibility.  In situations where LAs are also clients, they need to enact their own guidance. And to do this effectively you may have to build your capability, get external support, write your guidance into a tender – and reality test it. And that may cost.  I understand why short term pressures frequently trump long term aspirations, but if you are commissioning to Building Regulations at lowest cost, you are reinforcing the culture that mitigates against realising your sustainability ambitions.

I would argue it is perfectly reasonable to ask developers to close the performance gap; you don’t want the emissions, and they can’t reasonably argue it is a legitimate deliverable.  There is a question about how to assess this has been achieved at the end of a development, but you can encourage developers to use 3rd party systems that will assure some of the process for you.  The NEF’s Assured Performance Process, St Gobain Multi-comfort, the Home Quality Mark, Wienerberger E4, AECB Silver, Passivhaus…

Energy demand requirements need to be ambitious, but realistic. Legally, some advise that you can ask up to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 equivalent.  I would argue the Zero Carbon Hub’s Fabric Energy Efficiency Standard is practical and deliverable.  However, requirements must be placed in a tender when the LA itself is procuring, partly so that viability can be better understood but also to give developers confidence to invest.

Some LAs have worked with contractors and supply chains to build the skills that support their ambition.  I attended the opening of the Fabric First Institute in Norwich and was inspired by the enthusiasm that the training, industry and client organisations showed to make a step change. They have worked collectively to get funding, develop courses and referral mechanisms, and raise expectations. LAs need to consider what they can put in place locally that says (1) we are very serious about this and (2) how can we bring you on the journey? This could be a learning and collaboration framework, a best practice network, or exemplar sites that the LA itself has carried through to fulfil its own guidance.

So, to summarise, what is the role of LAs in raising sustainability standards?

They have to be clear what their sustainability standards are, they have to make them practical, they have to set up mechanisms that encourage and enable – and they have to walk the walk. This includes recognising their own responsibilities as a client. And this may well take investment. But look at your local plan; does it call for 5,000 homes? 10,000? 100,000?  Set up a fund valued at £10 per home, and use that to shift your practice into the area beyond Building Regulations at lowest cost. Use it create the resources that will support your planning guidance, buy the external support you need to take your capability to a different place. If you aren’t willing to invest even £10 per new home, why should a developer treat your guidance seriously?  If your guidance isn’t good enough for you, why is it good enough for them?  With the pressures on the industry, why would they move beyond business as usual? National policy is on their side not yours, after all *.

[* This isn’t strictly true!  There is published legal advice that states LAs can require performance equivalent to CSH level 4, and there has been an unsuccessful legal challenge to this requirement in Brighton (see UKGBC, p11).  And don’t forget the Merton Rule still exists; APSE have done quite a lot of work on this which they are promoting at events.  However, it is very definitely the view of many developers that their only requirement is to comply with the NPPF and BRs, and this belief underlies much of the narrative in many sustainability statements.]

But at a time of significant housebuilding growth, we are missing an opportunity to learn from each other, raise standards consistently and simply make better use of the resources we have. And there are some really exciting things happening that match our ambition; there is evidence emerging of energy efficient homes providing market differentiation, cash flow through quicker sales, and in some cases a price premium. Markets are responding, for example the LENDERS project which is building the evidence base for the links between energy efficiency, affordability and mortgage borrowing, and the Ecology Building Society’s discounts on mortgages for more energy efficient homes. We could do something really exciting here as a trusted agent: can we endorse a development if it complies with guidance? And can this link to a discounted mortgage?  This is untested territory but that’s where guidance adds value. And what about building skills in low energy building? These are valuable and transferable, another benefit to the local communities on whose behalf we are producing the guidance.

Let’s finish with a quote from Danny Dorling’s book, All that is solid, to remind ourselves why: “We have to recognise that housing is central to environmental sustainability. When we build, we need to build for the very long term”.

This blog was originally published in January 2017 at www.multicomfort.co.uk.

Tom Jarman, Director, Low Carbon Journey Ltd

Tom has been interested in sustainability since the first bottle banks were opened in his home town in the late 1970s. He has since worked in the private and public sector, managing teams and in project development and management. He now works in low carbon new build, deep retrofit, future energy systems and building information modelling.  

© 2017: Tom Jarman and the AECB (for Terms and Conditions click here)

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