11 Dec 2012

Why is there so little selfbuild in the UK?

The Coalition government has been the first one to get interested in selfbuild. Grant Shapps, its first housing minister, is a fan and he set in motion an action plan to double the amount of selfbuild in the UK. Inside the published report is a tell-tale bar chart (seen here) which shows the level of selfbuild activity across the developed world and, surprise, surprise, the UK is bottom of the list by some margin. For most countries between a third and two thirds of their new housing stock is selfbuilt; in Britain, it's between 10 and 15%.

Rarely can a bar chart have been so significant in shaping policy. One glance at it tells you something very straightforward: what goes on in the UK housing market is not normal. But just why we have developed a different housing market?

There are a couple of other cogent statistics which tell us more of the same story. Our new homes are smaller than elsewhere. And we build fewer of them. By way of comparison, in 2012 the UK will build around 100,000 new home whilst in Germany, a country with a population 30% larger and with lower levels of immigration, the figure will be around 220,000, or 60% more per head. Of which, according to our chart, 60% were selfbuilds. So there are more new selfbuilds in Germany each year than we manage to build in our entirety.

I can believe it. You don't need to go to Germany to see how homes are built. Just visit Google Earth and hone in on the suburbs of any town or city in Germany and you can see the tell-tale signs of the owner-built home. In England, the development is structured, uniform and compact. In Germany, it's much looser, the gardens are bigger and the layouts seems more organic. The houses themselves are also much more individuated, although they don't appear from the sky to be anything too risqué in design. Don't think for a moment that 60% selfbuild equates to lots of radical architecture. It doesn't.

The question is why have two seemingly quite similar countries developed such different private housebuilding models?

It's something I discussed at length with Markus Kuhn last week. Markus is a leading light in the Cambridge University Selfbuild group and would love to build a home for his young family here, just as his parents and sister have each done back home in Germany. Markus has been researching some of the background of the German planning system and we have been comparing notes. One of the key differences to emerge is Germany's local residence models which are used to ensure the availability of building plots for locals and to protect the market from speculators.

There were originally two such schemes, the Weilheimer-Modell and Traunsteiner-Modell, which have been widely copied and have in time been adopted in national planning law. In both, the outline planning permission process is started only after the land owner has signed contracts with the municipality or council. The municipality places conditions on any future sales which controls not only the price but also the qualifications of the purchaser. Locals are given precedence, although how local is defined is something I haven't been able to fathom.

Ireland also operates a planning system favouring locals, sometimes referred to as Grandfather Rights. Dubliners fancying a spot of rural selfbuild have only to find out where their grandparents came from and planning permission is likely to be forthcoming in that parish.

Things couldn't be more different in the UK, especially in England. Here it would be regarded as politically very dubious if one group of buyers were given preference over another simply on grounds of where they came from. We practice open access and and anything suggesting discrimination is viewed as being suspect. Indeed, we tend to pride ourselves on our liberal attitudes in this respect and we are secretly dismissive of countries which formally espouse liberal values but don't actually practise them at grass roots level.

What we do do in the UK is make concessions for affordable housing. It seems quite acceptable to bring forward schemes for affordable homes for local people who would otherwise be shut out of their villages' housing markets, but this breaks down when applied to market housing where it has to be free to all comers. As housing has become more and more expensive in the UK, the definition of affordable housing seems to grow so that it now includes key workers and even young people generally who would never be able to afford a market-priced house. Thus gradually our planning system is adopting a more discriminatory approach, but its still a long way short of what happens elsewhere.

One of Markus's interesting observations is that the home he currently lives in, which is in a 1930s suburb of Cambridge, seems to have been developed using a framework very similar to what happens in Germany today. The council appeared to have laid out the street, individual plots were sold to individuals and here and there small terraces or semis were developed by local builders for resale.

Now, if that land was made available in Britain today, it would already be optioned off to a major housebuilder to do with as they please. This sort of speculative development rarely happens in Germany or indeed anywhere else in Europe. It's the key difference in our housing markets and it's the key factor behind that bar chart. What's exceptional about our housing market isn't that there is so little selfbuild, but that there is so much speculative development.

But can the reason for this be placed on our open access planning regime? Have we cooked up a system that not only gives us pokey homes with little or no garden but also makes us mostly very anti-development. This in turn makes release of land for housebuilding very contentious, which results in very expensive building land which, in turn, means even pokier homes with even smaller gardens? Have we, in other words, created a monster of a vicious circle which protects the countryside but does very little for our new housing stock or the people that aspire to live in it?

The paradox is that whilst I have been referring to our planning system as being open access (in that it's non-discriminatory), what has happened over the past fifty years is that it's become a closed shop in which you need to be a big player to get a seat at the table. The same process which has led to the destruction of our high streets, by enabling out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets to dominate, has also led to our new housing market becoming dominated by a few mega-housebuilders answerable only to their shareholders, the complete opposite of what the Town & Country Planning Act sought to achieve in 1947.

We could have done it differently. We could have kept speculation out of the new homes market. And we could have done it without a locals first policy, simply by insisting on owner-built homes, or some variation of the German-style policies. We would have lost more countryside, but we would have gained bigger gardens. And we might have built more houses overall and enjoyed lower house prices.

We could yet change course and encourage selfbuild, but it would have to be at the expense of the major housebuilders and that's a message which I don't think the government, for all its genuine enthusiasm for selfbuild, has really taken on board. We can have lots of selfbuild, like Germany, or lots of spec. build, as we do now, but we can't have both. Planning policies either have to discriminate in favour of the little guys (be they local or not), or they leave a vacuum to be filled by big money.

7 Dec 2012

My RHI response (don't get too excited)

The Renewable Heat Incentive Consultation closes today. Thanks to Kate de Selincourt who alerted me to this. I spent 40 minutes replying to some of the many questions and thought I would share my responses with blog readers. If you want to put your five pence worth in, be quick. It's here: RHI Consultation

1. What are your views about the proposed approach of a universally available tariff scheme? Is a tariff scheme the most efficient way to drive down technology costs, increase innovation and value for money, together with developing a homegrown supply chain? Please include reasoning for your response.

No, I think a tariff scheme, especially a deemed tariff scheme is not the way to go here. It seems to be modelled on FITs which have themselves been copied from Germany. FITs have been successful because they have been generous, but an installation-based subsidy has the potential to be just as successful and would be easier to comprehend from the consumer's standpoint and to administer for government agencies.

2. Do you think that there would be advantages in phasing or piloting roll out of the scheme? On what basis do you think it might make sense to phase or pilot the scheme?

Not really. FITS have been around long enough for us to know what is likely to happen. RHI has already been delayed. "Phasing" sounds like a polite way of adding further delay.

3. Do you think that there may be alternative or additional approaches to incentivising renewable heat deployment that we should pursue? What approaches do you think might add most value?

Yes. If there is to be any subsidy, it should be towards the installation costs. As with almost all non-fossil fuelled power sources, the running costs are generally much lower. It's the capital costs which are the barrier to uptake. Consequently, it makes little sense to incentivise the running costs, which is what the RHI is planning to do. The entry barriers remain just as large as ever, and only the rich or well connected will be able to take advantage of the RHI. This makes it regressive.

10. Do you agree with the proposed eligible technologies set out above? Are there others that should be considered for inclusion?

No, I don't. I am critical of the inclusion of biomass for reasons already made known to DECC. It is quite wrong-headed of us to be subsidising the burning of carbon-intensive fuels, and biomass is carbon-intensive. The inclusion of biomass in the RHI seems to be all about meeting 2020 EU targets for renewable usage, but that doesn't stop it being bad science.

If we must subsidise here, let's encourage the use of timber and other biomass materials in construction, where the carbon will be locked up for the critical years ahead when we have to reduce CO2 emissions.

11. Do you agree that an approved suppliers scheme is the best option for domestic biomass heat installations to demonstrate their use of sustainable fuel? Please provide reasoning with your response.

Hard to answer as I don't agree that biomass is a sustainable fuel. I guess some sort of auditing on the supply side is preferable to none at all, but I fear if biomass really takes off as a fuel source, that it will be sourced from further and further afield and that the auditing is likely to be compromised.

12. Do you agree that as part of the approved biomass supplier list we should assume a level of boiler efficiency?

Yes, if biomass is to be burnt, then at least control the boiler efficiencies. Insist on condensing biomass boilers at the very least.

23. What is the risk of switchback after the period over which tariff payments are made? Do you think this applies solely to biomass?

If you provide a mechanism for people to harvest a subsidy for their fuel bills, then of course there is a risk they will find another way of providing heating after the subsidy is withdrawn. That is yet another reason why capital cost subsidy is preferable.

39. Do you agree that deeming, as opposed to metering, is the most appropriate approach on which to base the calculation of RHI payments? If not, why not?

I can see why deeming is the preferred method, but I don't like it. It seems to highlight yet another problem with subsidising running costs, and not installation costs.

27 Nov 2012

The Gas Saver

Condensing boilers are no longer news. They first appeared in the 1980s and for years were known as energy-saving boilers. They work by having a secondary heat exchanger which is used to take a load of heat out of the flue gases from the main boiler. This makes them more expensive to build and a little more expensive to install. Hence, they were seen as something of a green curio, an expensive option for those who cared about the planet, or the size of their gas bills. By 2004, they had achieved a market penetration of just 3%. Although a condensing boiler could be shown to have a very short payback (less than 5 years), people didn't want to spend an extra £250 for a condenser.

But then the building regs changed. In April 2005, Part L (England & Wales) was amended to make condensing boilers all but compulsory. Today, condensing boilers have over 95% of the new boiler market. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a prime example of government intervention raising the bar. What is more, you can source an A-rated Baxi Solo condensing boiler for just £450 (plus VAT). We were paying that much for ordinary boilers back in the 1990s. So competition and economies of scale have eroded the price differential (though some cynics will argue that quality has also been engineered out).

All in all, it makes a powerful argument in favour of legislation as the best way of increasing energy efficiency. If condensers hadn't been made compulsory, I bet that they would still cost £250 more and that market penetration would be sticky at around 3%.

Which brings me on to Zenex's Gas Saver. This is a new(ish) device which you attach to a condensing gas boiler and it draws even more heat from the flue gases and uses it to pre-heat the water going into the boiler. It is, if you like, a tertiary heat exchanger. The generic name for this is Passive Flue Gas Heat Recovery Devices (PFGHRDs) and the inventor, Chris Farrell, started Zenex to develop and market it.

In some ways, it's been a splendid success. Fitting a PFGHRD to a boiler has been demonstrated to bring about gas savings of up to 40% for hot water generation and consequently PFGHRDs are a ground-breaking British technology, recognised in Building Regulations, recommended by the Energy Saving Trust and recognised in the Green Deal.

Better still, two of our major boiler manufacturers, Baxi and Alpha, now market Zenex's Gas Saver with their own offerings. Indeed Alpha have a built-in version (The In Tec GS) so that you can install the boiler and the Gas saver in just one box.

But the Gas Saver costs. On it's own, it's over £600 to buy. Coupled with an Alpha boiler, it doubles the price of the boiler. And just like the condensing boiler pre 2005, it has a tiny market penetration. There are around 1.5million new boilers fitted in the UK each year (about 90% of these are replacements) and only a tiny fraction have Gas Savers fitted to them.

How best to change this situation? Though the savings appear to be real enough, and the payback period is again probably less than five years, the uplift in price between a condensing boiler and a condensing boiler plus Gas Saver is enough to put most casual buyers off — that's if they ever get to hear about it in the first place. Maybe the Green Deal will come into its own here, as PFGHRDs appear to meet the Golden Rule. But I can't help feeling that the answer lies in building regs enforcement.

14 Nov 2012

At last: a Passiv Wood Stove

In the rarified world of Passivhaus design there has been a small problem gnawing away at many enthusiasts, especially the selfbuilders. Wood stoves. They may not need them, but they want them. Focal point fires. Comfort. Neolithic TV. Call it what you will, but fires have a certain pull. And a pellet boiler just won't do.

There are — or have been — a couple of problems. One is that you need so little heat in a Passivhaus that the smallest wood stove is still too big. It's hard to make a wood stove that doesn't emit at least 4kW of heat, because that's what a log gives off when it's burning well and it seems a bit pointless to start burning kindling. That's not too big an issue — after all, as Passivhaus devotees keep saying, you can always open a window to make the room a bit cooler if you get too hot. Or you can start using the stove to heat hot water — but maybe not, as here things start to get a little bit more complex.

The next issue is the fresh air supply. Opening that same window is not really an acceptable failsafe option. And you can't fall back on the traditional, permanently open, ventilation grill — not when you've gone to so much trouble to make the place so airtight in the first place. In a draughty old pile, it's not really a problem because there is plenty of fresh air coming at you from all corners, but in a Passivhaus that's not the case. The supply air problem is usually addressed via an air duct piped directly into the stove. It's still not ideal, as it creates a cold bridge with the outside and another potential air leakage path — remember, all penetrations are bad news. But it's sort of on the right lines. It makes the stove room-sealed.

But another niggly little issue concerns spillage, the term given to the cloud of smoke emitted from the stove every time you open the door to re-load. In a draughty old pile, it quickly gets lost in the background, but in a Passivhaus the smoke will hang around until it's drawn away into the MVHR system, where it will end up clogging up the filter.

Well, as it happens, Chesney's, the wood stove manufacturers based in London, have just come up with a spillage-free stove design. Nigel True, their stove wizard, (pictured)

has been beavering away in his Whitstable workshop and has hit on a spillage-free design. "Until now, the best solution on the market has been a stove with a hinged door with an automatic closer," he told me. "We've come up with a design which diverts the air intake when the door opens so that the supply flow is redirected from an opening under the door into the stove, and away up the flue. It doesn't smoke at all"

The idea for a Passiv stove came about when they were contacted by CenterParcs with a view to supplying stoves in all their Passivhaus-standard chalets at their yet-to-be constructed Woburn site. The contract itself came to nothing, as CenterParcs later lowered their spec on cost grounds, but Chesney's carried on with the project and have now launched the resultant stove commercially. Its been through rigorous testing at Gastec in Cheltenham (the place where all UK good wood stoves get tested for smoke emissions) and has emerged with distinction. Both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions were rated as "negligible" even when subjected to worse case scenarios — i.e. forgetting to close the door.

At present, the new design has been fitted into a fairly basic 4.6kW Milan stove. It's being marketed under the name of Milan Passiv and the retail cost will be around £1150 plus VAT, which is around 25% more than the regular Milan stove. This puts it down at the lower end of what people pay for new wood burners.

As it happens, Passivhaus stove enthusiasts may have another promising development on the horizon. Poujoulat, the French chimney and flue manufacturers, are about to launch a triple-walled stainless steel flue which will work in conjunction with Chesneys new stove range. The advantage of a triple-walled flue is that the external cavity becomes the the stove intake air supply, in a the way a balanced flue works on a gas boiler. Not only does the intake air get pre-heated as it's drawn down the flue (thus increasing combustion efficiency), but the extra vent hole for supply air is eliminated. Instead of two penetrations, you have one: music to the ears of Passivhaus builders.

As of now, I don't think this product is yet on the market, but according to James Parkin, their UK technical manager, it's coming soon and anyone interested should contact him at j.parkin@poujoulat.co.uk

9 Nov 2012

Passivhaus Conference 2012

I have just returned from the UK Passivhaus Conference 2012, held in Nottingham. Two days of lectures, networking, eating, drinking and schmoozing in East Midlands Conference Centre and a night sleeping in the brand new Orchard Hotel next door, so new that it wasn't actually finished.

As is so often the case with events like this, you come back down slowly to earth with a huge swathe of unnoticed feelings and unformed opinions, and only gradually do you assimilate the drift of what was going on there.

Some obvious things stand out: Passivhaus is a success if measured by the number of projects underway in this country (75 underway or completed, up from very little last year), and the spread of people taking an interest has widened to include lots of businesses I had never heard of before. There is a surprising amount of interest from RSLs who are more concerned with whole-life costings than up front capital costs, and see a genuine payback in using Passivhaus principles if measuring over a 25 year period. Many of these 75 schemes involve several units: they are not all one-offs.

And there is also great interest from the schools sector and one or two offices. I also talked to a man who was sussing out whether Passivhaus would be suitable for a fire station.

If there was a theme this year, it was summed up by the number of presentations, especially on Day Two, on Post Occupancy Testing. Lots of figures, lots of graphs and lots of tables, all rather hard to take in slide shows if truth be told, but with one over-arching theme — Passivhaus delivers what it says on the tin. Whereas the building world has been bedevilled by many so-called green projects which turned out to be anything but, Passivhaus standards, if properly instigated, seem to hit their targets unerringly.

But, you might argue, we knew that already. Well, yes it's true: there have been lots of testing carried out in Germany and Austria and the reason that Passivhaus is catching on elsewhere is that it has been proven to be effective. Post Completion Testing is construction's equivalent of the Double Blind Trial — a little bit of scientific rigour brought to bear.

What's interesting about this is that it puts Passivhaus firmly into the enlightenment camp of people who believe in logic and science and physics in particular. Not all green construction resides here and there were many people there uneasy about some of the reductive nature of Passivhaus. If Passivhaus works, does it follow that we should be building compact, rectangular boxes, all clad in white render in a vaguely international style? Does engineering have to trump aesthetics every time? And what about if you want to build using more cuddly materials like straw bale, or turf roofs? Do they have a place?

Well of course they do, because there are already examples of straw-bale Passiv and very traditional, vernacular-style buildings as well. Passivhaus boxes clever here because it says it's not prescriptive, it's just a standard and that you are free to interpret it in any way you see fit. But that ignores the fact that it's an engineering standard more than an architectural one, a standard whose primary design tool is a spreadsheet (PHPP) not a drawing board. Elegance, in the world of Passivhaus, is simplicity not ornamentation, and whilst there is nothing to stop you indulging in architecture with a capital A, in doing so you veer away from the essential message.

That's not to say that, for all its scientific rigour, Passivhaus has all the answers. No, there are still questions to be resolved, primarily to do with resilience. The three corner stones of Passivhaus are insulation (lots of it), airtightness (v. tight) and ventilation (MVHR please). It works in models and it works in practice. But how will it work over the lifetime of a building? Will the airtightness be compromised by inhabitants putting in cables for their TV sets or cat flaps for their pets? Or just knocking houses about for the fun of it? And what about these ventilation units? Will they get adequately serviced? Will they continue to work as planned? Indeed, will a new certified Passivhaus circa 2012 still be a Passivhaus in 2022, or 2052? If a Passivhaus is difficult to design and build (it is) then it will surely be difficult to maintain?

This was brought out a couple of times by speakers relating what had happened to some of the social housing Passivhaus projects. Some of the tenants had tinkered (i.e. messed up) the MVHR settings, many of them had installed huge plasma TVs (Lord, help us), one kept a window open all winter long so that he could run an extension lead into the garden to power up the jacuzzi. And you could tell the ones that smoked dope from the state of their ventilation filters.

It all sounded just a tad Victorian as these well-meaning philanthropists bestowed heaven-on-earth (aka Passivhaus) on these poor saps, only to find that they are a bunch of undeserving ner-do-wells, intent on a lifestyle of drink, drugs, fatty foods and general sloth. I'm sure that's a total exaggeration, but as always, it's the anecdotes that you remember, not the graphs.

There was lots on retrofit. Cost and test data is still coming in from the RetroFit for the Future schemes which are now complete. It's a much more problematic area than new build because, whilst there is undoubted elegance in creating a genuinely low-energy structure, almost nothing about retrofit could be described as elegant. It's an almighty kerfuffle and it's also incredibly expensive if done to Passivhaus standards, often considerably more than starting again from scratch. This poses problem for enlightened builders because logic would seem to dictate that we would be better to demolish every inefficient house and rebuild our entire housing stock on Passivhaus principles. But of course that ain't going to happen. Not only is there extreme opposition to it from the population at large, but it's also such a vast task that no way would we be able to complete it in a sensible timescale.

What we don't know — cannot know — is what the future holds in terms of energy supply. Will we have got to grips with the supply problem by 2050? Will we have lots of low-carbon energy to burn, or will it be a precious commodity to be husbanded carefully. And how much will it cost? Without this information, we can do no more than guess at how much effort we should make to "RetroFit" our existing building stock.

1 Nov 2012

Green Deal: Reading the Runes

I spent Tuesday at the NEC in Birmingham, visiting an exhibition entitled RetroExpo. Running inside it was a Green Deal Summit which featured a number of Green Deal(GD) notables working through their PowerPoints. That's not to be disparaging about them, there were lots of very distinguished speakers, and the exhibition is to be congratulated for assembling them all together in one place. Surely, now was the chance to learn something significant about GD?

Well maybe, maybe not. I've yet to write anything enthusiastic about GD and my feelings haven't changed much as a result of Tuesday's deliberations. For a start, it's damned complicated, so complicated that presenters kept flashing up organisation charts only to quickly withdraw them because they were too difficult to explain. Not encouraging.

It seems to get a GD going, you have to start with an assessor coming to visit your property and carrying out a survey. How much will this cost? Various answers from £130 down to nothing. If it's nothing, that tends to suggest that the assessor will be a tied agent. Would you trust such a person to carry out an independent survey? I wouldn't.

Anyway, stage two is to put the survey results into effect. There is much talk of the Golden Rule which means that the works to be undertaken have to payback in 10 years. Or is it 25? Or something else? I'm afraid I still don't know. And do you have to take the GD Finance Deal (at somewhere between 6% and 8% APR — again no one can say for sure)? What if you decide to arrange your own finance, or just pay for it from savings, is it still a green deal, and will you get the guarantee? No one could answer these either.

How much will it all cost? It was here that I did learn something new although it still didn't fill me with confidence. The government has announced some kick start money to get the GD off the ground. I though this was just window dressing, but it turns out this may just be the start and that the energy companies will soon start to subsidise GD works in the way they have been doing cavity wall and loft insulation. They are required by law to undertake carbon saving measures, expressed in tonnes of carbon per annum (it's different for each company, depending on their size). Some of this carbon-saving cash is probably going to filter through to GD providers and it may end up subsidising works such as external wall insulation (EWI), which on their own are very unlikely to ever meet the Golden Rule.

So, for instance, if EWI is estimated to cost £10,000, and the expected saving is, say, £300/annum, then the householder might only have to pay £3,000 (which gets roughly a 10 year payback), with the other £7,000 being paid for via an energy company subsidy - or ECO as it's getting called. Or at least I think that's what ECO is — once again the slippery nature of the GD makes it hard to know what is what. Was ECO a fund or a mechanism? Or both?

If I am right, then you really need someone else acting as a broker, who could fit your job together with the appropriate energy company, the one who is offering the best subsidy for this kind of work.

At least, I think that may be how it will work. I could also be completely wrong. But then, if I am, I will not be alone.

I came away surprised by:
a) how much I already knew about the Green Deal — I kept thinking "I know that" — but
b) how much I didn't understand — like how is it all going to work.

I wish it well, but I don't think the runes are looking too helpful.

27 Oct 2012

Bonfire of the Building Regs?

Building regs front page news. Here. That's twice in one year, after the Conservatory Tax fiasco back in April. What's going on?

It's hard not to conclude that it's the work of the headline-grabbing tea party tendency which seems to have taken over the Treasury, the rip-up red tape at any cost brigade.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with turning the building regs into a political football. In fact, I welcome it as it's actually a fascinating area. The regs are constantly under review in any event, and that doesn't always mean they get stricter and more expensive. I have sat in on a dozen or so government-sponsored meetings in the past five years which were seeking input from the selfbuild/DIY sectors, with a view to simplifying the building regs. What struck me after all this is how slowly the wheels turn and how good intentions very quickly get watered down. If there really is to be a bonfire, it will probably take an age to catch fire and we won't see its effects for about five years. Long after the next general election.

On the other hand, there's no doubt that the heavy hand of state intervention is writ large across our building activities and, thanks to this, we now have building standards that are far in advance of what we were required to meet even in my building lifetime (which began in 1980). Sometimes the regs are intrusive and seem petty, but mostly everyone is happy to accept them as they do make for better, safer homes. And if everybody has to comply, then there is no feeling of being cheated.

But in practice, any change in the building regs causes problems and upheavals. They are not easy to implement and they take years to bed in. If the government chooses to turn back the clock and make our building standards less exacting — and cheaper — that's its prerogative. But the way to do it is to bring it in as a fait accompli, not to announce to the world at large that it's undertaking a review. That's just political posturing which is likely to cause a good deal of confusion. The one thing it won't do is to "Get Britain Building" or some such silly nostrum. If anything, it's likely to make people pull projects they might otherwise have been considering on the grounds that they might just save a few quid.

24 Oct 2012

Do we really need any new homes?

There is a an unspoken problem at the centre of our housing debate. Are we short of new homes? Almost every commentator states that we are and that we therefore have a housing crisis on our hands. But the evidence for it is thin on the ground and what there is is almost always constructed from data which is only partially relevant.

Like the length of council house waiting lists, which is long and growing longer, but this only tells us the demand for council/social housing. Which, in turn, tells us that either private housing is too expensive or social housing is too cheap, but it doesn't really inform us as to whether there is a shortage of housing overall.

Or rents. Rents are going up in the South-East, having been pretty stable for many years. The reason seems to be that the population is increasing, private housing is too expensive to buy, mortgage finance is difficult to come by and so private renting is the only option for many. The squeeze is on, for sure, but this still doesn't lead to the conclusion that we are short of houses.

For to be short of houses, we have to have some notion of how many houses there should be. We don't. The nearest we come to it is something called the rate of household formation, popularly believed to be around 250,000/annum in the UK as a whole. This is used as a yardstick against which to measure our pitiful attempts to match it.

In the 20 years I have been writing about housing, we have never got close to this target. It's only ever been an aspiration. In the Blair boom years, we achieved about 180,000 new homes a year: now it's down to around 100,000. In the past five years, we have fallen short of this notional target by an accumulative 750,000 homes, so you'd think house prices would have rocketed as a result. Which, of course, they haven't.

Which perhaps in turn tells us that the notion of a rate of household formation is bunkum. Households form when they can afford to. When times are tough, they hang together. A household formation rate is a nebulous idea which may well be derived from historical data but it tells us nothing about the situation as it now stands.

To have a housing shortage, you have to have something more concrete to measure it against. Like what? Well, some sort of housing standard such as number of bedrooms per head of population. Or national housing floor area, or some such Domesday Book type data (which the national census doesn't seem to collect). If we had such data to hand, we could then set a standard — such as there must be 1.5 bedrooms for every man, woman and child living in the UK — and then we could judge whether or not we have a shortfall.

Without such an approach, there is really no way of knowing whether we have too many or too few homes, anymore than we might know whether there is a road shortage or a supermarket shortage. Relative to what?

The only hard data we actually have are house prices which are very efficient at allocating resources, so that supply and demand are kept in balance. For every buyer who thinks prices are too high, there is a seller who think they are too low. Do the sellers thus conclude there is a housing surplus? No. So why do buyers insist there is a shortage? Because they'd like to see lower house prices, naturally.

But the sellers — largely the elderly half of the population — want house prices to stay high to pay for their retirement. They certainly don't want them to crash. And, surprise, surprise, it's the oldsters who are mostly dead set against new building in their area. They are the classic NIMBYs. They are not stupid.

So in a nutshell, the young would like there to be more homes so that the prices might inch down a little, whilst the sellers are perfectly happy with what we've got, thank you. That's the essential tension between the young and the old which creates our housing market. It doesn't however follow from that that we have a housing shortage.

22 Oct 2012

What David Cameron should have said

Imagine going to fill up the family car at the garage and being confronted with a menu.

"Buy your first 10 litres for £2.00 and you can fill up the rest of the tank at just £1.15 per litre." Hmm, that sounds good. Or does it? Whilst you are trying to figure out if this is a good deal or not, you eyes alight on another option.

"Get your car serviced here and you can get 30p per litre off your petrol for six months." Excellent, you think. Except you now start wondering if its 30p off the first 10 litre price or the lower, follow-up price. Maybe it doesn't matter. Then there's another option.

"Pay by direct debit and we'll knock 5% off your annual bill." Gosh, this does sound good. A reward for loyalty. The more I spend, the more I save. You start to feel that you could spend your whole life cruising the motorways for free.

So you stand there on the forecourt not really knowing whether you are coming or going. You just wanted to fill up with petrol and you've ended up taking an IQ test and now you have a horrible feeling you've just failed.

I suspect you may know where this is going. Petrol and diesel on our forecourts may be horribly expensive but at least their purchase is a simple matter. You pay the price advertised on the sign.

Not so our domestic fuel bills. The menu of options described above is only the beginning for our gas and electric utilities. Most of them have 30 or 40 different tariffs, each with its own merits. When David Cameron made his off the cuff comment in the Commons last week about forcing energy companies to offer customers their lowest tariff, he stirred up a hornet's nest. Because the way fuel bills are constructed, it's almost impossible to tell what the best deal is. Price comparison websites can give you an indication of what would have been the best deal for you in the past, but have no way of knowing what the future deals will be, as the prices can and will change.

Of course, David Cameron has form on issues like this. So keen is he to appear to be a man of the people that he is given to making what he thinks are popular gestures which then turn out to be ill thought through. Or not thought through at all.

Had he called for energy bills to be simpler to understand, he might have been onto something. Had he demanded that the ludicrous two-tier tariffs, that all utility companies still base their billing on, be replaced with a petrol-pump style single price per kilowatt hour, he would have been making progress for all of us. At a glance we would be able to see who is offering what, and where we should place our money.

16 Aug 2012

Who are the real land scammers?

Land bank scams are back in the spotlight. Land banking is nothing new: it was a feature of the selfbuild scene when I first got involved around 20 years ago, and despite our best efforts, it's still very much around.

This is how it works. Unscrupulous people buy fields which never have a hope in hell of being built on and then flog off little chunks of these fields as building plots. They pay maybe £20k for the field, they then charge £10k for a dozen plots, and they pocket the difference.

The poor saps who are persuaded to buy the plots are left with a meaningless subdivision of a field which they don't even have access to, let alone any hope of building anything on it. It's a scam, pure and simple, but it's hard to outlaw because there is nothing illegal about subdividing a field and selling it off in parcels: the fraud relies on exaggerating the hope value placed on the plots and that can be difficult to prove, especially as the land bankers don't use conventional marketing channels, instead mostly relying on high-pressure sales techniques. They will hold out the prospect of a fat profit, but only if you move quickly. Oh, and you don't need to bother with a conveyancing solicitor — you don't need one to buy a car, do you? And this is less than a new car!

Anyway, despite lots of media exposure, and parliamentary questions and such, land banking scams are still with us and may in fact be getting worse. Such has been the publicity surrounding Grant Shapps's "selfbuild revolution" that there is now a whole new cohort of potential suckers out there who know nothing about the perils of land banking.

But whilst the land bankers might trouser the odd £10k from the unsuspecting public, there is a a much bigger scam going on down at the town hall and this is one that the Financial Services Authority will not be investigating. We are talking impact fees, or development contributions, and these mothers are big.

For decades, big housebuilders and developers have had to make infrastructure contributions in return for getting planning permissions. It was par for the course. "You wanna build 100 new homes here? Make 30 of them affordable, and give us a couple of million so we can build you a nice access road with its own roundabout. And some swings for the kiddies. There's a good boy."

But times change and this sort of conversation is no longer for the big guns. It's filtered down to individual selfbuilds and it may even be on its way towards people adding extensions. "You wanna add an extra bedroom? That'll be another desk in the primary skule and that costs us £20k." Long gone are the days when the rates would cover local expenditure: too much local government money comes from central funding, so it's hardly surprising that local government looks at innovative ways of raising extra cash. That won't lose any votes. The squeeze is on.

Trouble is this just may to stop building dead in its tracks. In the past few days, stories of selfbuilders being asked for a £50k contribution have hit my screen, and in one case, mentioned in a Jason Orme blog, £187k. Call it S106 payments, Affordable Housing Contributions, Community Infrastructure Levy, it all amounts to much the same thing - a stealth tax on development.

Now, arguably, if this is all done and dusted before the selfbuilder ever gets hold of the land, and the extra expense is made clear at the outset, it's no bad thing, as in theory, the fees will be deducted from the uplift in value from the granting of planning permission. But this isn't always the case, and lots of would-be selfbuilds in back gardens will be rendered unviable by the introduction of fees. It all begins to make the land bankers look like amateurs.

Behind all this is the very odd way in which land tenure is handled. You can nominally own a piece of land or a house but if you want to do something different with it, the decision rests with others, namely the council. This used to be an entirely political matter — you simply had to convince the planners and your neighbours. But, in these straightened times, it looks like it's going to have a financial element attached to it now, over and above the mere cost of applying for planning permission. In effect, planning permissions will be sold for whatever the market will bear and any uplift in value as a result of that permission will mainly accrue to the council.

So you can see that the two issues — land bank scams and council contributions — are in fact closely linked and reflect two sides of the same coin. Namely, that planning permission is worth far more than land itself, and that this represents a type of public ownership of land by stealth. Granting planning permission on agricultural land is very similar to printing money because it creates value: it's hardly surprising that the ones granting the permission — the councils — are now trying to get their hands on the spoils.

The message is that potential plot purchasers now have two sharks out there to watch out for. The first is to avoid buying a piece of land with no hope of ever getting planning permission: the second is to make sure that if the land does stand a chance of getting planning, that you will be able to afford to pay for it when the permission is granted.

11 Jul 2012

To plan, or not to plan

Here's an interesting local story with national implications. Cambridge MP, LibDem Julian Huppert (pictured), won a ballot to introduce a private member's bill in the House of Commons and he elected to ask his constituents for some ideas. Top of the poll was the suggestion that we should stop converting disused pubs into flats. But there was a second leg to the bill as well which would stop existing premises being turned into supermarkets.

Now these issues have resonance in Cambridge because we have lost 20 pubs in recent years - all having made way for flats. And we have gained dozens of supermarkets, Tesco Expresses in particular, which have done for lots of independent shops. It's a process that is going on all over the land but in Cambridge it seems to be on steroids. The issue is, of course, the clone town, which everybody and their aunt hates, but which planning has no issue with.

But underlying this is a wider issue which rarely gets an airing and that is the right of an owner to do what they wish with their property. If their pub doesn't stack up financially, why shouldn't the landlord be able to sell it to a developer? If a shop or warehouse is losing money, surely the owner should be able to sell it on to the highest bidder? If Huppert's bill was to become law — apparently this is most unlikely — then it would become the thin end of the wedge and the next thing would be neighbours demanding a veto over who you can sell your house to.

Strip it away still further and you can see the essential dilemma that underlies all issues to do with planning permission. What does "ownership of property" really entail? Or, to put it another way, how much control should your neighbours have over what you can or cannot do with your own land or property?

I would say that our attitudes are now thoroughly inconsistent. Everybody pays lip service to doing away with red tape and making planning permission easier, quicker and simpler to obtain — it's easy to back such notions when they have no direct effect on you. But nobody likes it when a much loved neighbourhood changes, when a once loved pub turns into yet more student accommodation or a little used snooker hall is scheduled to transform into a chain supermarket. Or a neighbour builds a sodding great extension blocking out the light. Or a village is scheduled to become home to a windfarm. Yes, in instances like this, we are nearly all NIMBYs, we sign petitions, we lobby MPs. Which is how Julian Huppert no doubt got the idea of introducing this bill.

But has he thought it through at a philosophical level? His bill may be democratic, but it's hardly liberal.

19 Jun 2012

Is Thorium a Super Fuel?

Yesterday, I pitched up at Cambridge University's Engineering Dept to hear thorium evangelist Rick Martin talking about his new book, Super Fuel, subtitled Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future.

For those of you not familiar with the buzz about thorium, it's an alternative to using uranium as a fuel for nuclear reactors. It's abundant, it's much easier to manage and the waste and proliferation issues are greatly reduced (though not eliminated). I could go on, but you'd do better to look at the book.

What's just as interesting to me is that thorium has evangelists. Evangelists like Apple used to have evangelists? Yes, not so very different. But why would anyone evangelise nuclear power? Well, just as Apple was once a David pitching itself against Microsoft's Goliath, so thorium is very much a minnow when pitched against mainstream nuclear power. It's not just the fuel, it's how you use it and the buzz is all around liquid fluoride thorium reactors, known in thorium circles as Lifters, which don't need pressurising and have in-built passive protection against meltdowns.

This is not new technology. A Lifter was built and run for a while at the Oak Ridge Labs in the USA in the 1970s by Alvin Weinberg, the godfather of the thorium brigade. It worked fine but it got closed down because the USA decided that uranium reactors suited them better (at least in part because they could be used to produce enriched uranium for bombs). Since then very little has happened until very recently; the Chinese are now building a couple of lifters, and India is also starting to use thorium though as a solid fuel, not a liquid.

In the West, it's mostly down to the evangelists, notably Kirk Sorensen in the USA - you can watch his TED talk here:it's only 10 minutes and, boy, does he sound like Steve Jobs. Rick Martin seems to be his John the Baptist, not as technical but just as keen. Sorenson's and Martin's enthusiasm is infectious because, due to them, we know have our very own British evangelist, Bryony Worthington, who just happens to have a seat in the House of Lords. Worthington started out as an anti-nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth but re-assessed her views after coming into contact with Kirk Sorensen and finding out about thorium. There is also a Weinberg Foundation dedicated to spreading the thorium message.

I'm afraid I'm a sucker for all this. I don't know enough about nuclear physics to judge whether thorium is quite as wonderful as the evangelists make out, but there is such a buzz about it that it's hard not to get excited about the possibilities, especially as I feel so bleak about so many of the other options facing us. Hell, thorium even has its own skeptic, Arjun Makhjani, who makes nit-picking points about why it might not be such a great idea. You can hear him debate with Rick Martin here. Somehow, having a tame skeptic makes it all the more believable.

Martin made the telling point that nuclear R&D pretty much ground to a halt after Weinberg was sacked from his job by Nixon in 1973. Then, after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, it all just froze up. Nuclear power went right out of fashion and no young grad student worth their salt ever considered dedicating their life to nuclear research. Renewables were just so much more fashionable. But now it's changed. Martin said the current situation reminds him of Silicon Valley c 1980 when there was IBM who were everything in computing and all these little start-ups with very different visions of what might happen.

This tacitly acknowledges that thorium lifters are not the only nuclear game changers in town and that there are other vision of where we could go with nuclear slowly gathering momentum, notably the travelling wave reactors which are being backed by Bill Gates. There are other designs too - known generically as 4th Generation Reactors. And let's not ignore the €10 billion being spent on the experimental Iter fusion reactor in France.

After decades in a semi-moribund state, nuclear research has once again come alive, promising solutions to many of the age-old issues that have dogged the industry. But to date it's only thorium and its lifters that seems to get evangelists excited. It's hard to know quite why this is but I feel that in large part it's because of the back story of how the initial research was shelved and forgotten and how it's been unearthed by an unlikely, non-establishment hero. There is a touch of the fairy tale here, a touch of magic. Nuclear power badly needed re-branding and Kirk Sorensen may just be the man to do it.

13 Jun 2012

Is there anything good in the Green Deal?

Yesterday, I went to a meeting in London put on by SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) called to update people about their research into energy efficiency measures used in older properties. SPAB have become remarkably active in this field recently and there were nine presentations, each on different projects.

At the very heart of this research is a central fear that adding piles of insulation into old buildings (or indeed new ones) may cause havoc with the moisture levels in the fabric and may end up causing more harm than good. All across the country, researchers are beavering away measuring temperatures, U values, airtightness, relative humidity levels, rainfall, trying to work out what happens to homes both before and after treatment. What emerged was how little we really know about the behaviour of buildings, and how little research has been done.

The establishment view is summarised by two standards, BR 443 which deals with heat loss and sits behind the SAP calculations and BS 5250 which deals with condensation risk. In theory, if your wall assembly (or roof or floor) meets BR 443 and passes the BS 5250 test, then all is hunky dory. But in real life, most of the researchers were saying that neither standard really cuts the mustard and that the moisture modelling suggested by BS5250 is so simplistic that it's a veritable danger.

Which begs the question, what should replace it? Much was made of the more complex, dynamic WUFI model, though some pointed out that not everyone agrees that WUFI is the answer. Surely the Germans would know the answer? Maybe, but Neil May made the interesting point that he had reviewed much of the German language literature and wasn't convinced that their understanding was much better than ours. It seems that moisture behaviour in wall and roof assemblies remains poorly understood and therefore unpredictable.

So what's this all got to do with the Green Deal? Actually, it's pretty central because here we have a government policy which is designed to bounce us into both internal and external wall insulation in older properties, precisely the sort of measures which SPAB are highlighting may cause future problems. The Green Deal wasn't the purpose of this meeting, which was arranged months ago, but nevertheless the Green Deal did rather dominate proceedings and several interesting things came to light. To their credit, DECC (the government department behind the Green Deal) provided two spokepoeple, Nicola O'Connor and Steven Daniels, who explained some of the logic behind the recent publications, but they shot off pretty soon after their presentation and weren't around to hear the deluge of disquiet that followed.

One issue that kept emerging was the initial survey. There are, apparently, 45 measures which might be eligible for Green Deal finance, but which of these are suitable in any given household depend on the survey assessment by a professional who, it emerged, is going to be paid the princely sum of around £30 for undertaking this work. How much time is that going to buy? 10 minutes, if you are lucky. And will the advice be any good? More likely, it will be sales advice with commission for any number of supposedly Clean Tech businesses. "Will the survey be independent?" rang out the question from the floor. "We can't insist on this, but it will be impartial," replied DECC. "Hmmm", went the audience. A good independent survey, it was pointed out, like the ones Parity Projects undertake, is more likely to cost around £300-£500. Are "ordinary people" going to be happy to fork out an amount like this for a proper survey which might tell them to do nothing?

Then there is the warranty/guarantee. Apparently, there is to be some such scheme in place for Green Deal work, but exactly how it might work is hard to fathom. 25 years was mentioned, but can any building work be guaranteed for 25 years? This seems fanciful. And the loan is to be attached to the utility bills of the house, rather than the person who negotiated it, so if the house is subsequently sold, the loan goes with it.

Can you imagine what a sales boost this will be? "Oh, by the way, you have to pay £500 a year extra on your fuel bills until 2030 for all that insulation we stuck on the bedroom walls, and that air source heat pump which is in the garage but which we don't use very much."

More to the point, can you imagine big finance houses wanting to lend money on these terms? Combine the risk of an-as-yet unknown borrower with a warranty for work undertaken by others and just what would the interest rate be? That's a key point, and one that remains to be addressed. But if it can't beat a bank loan, or peer-to-peer lender Zopa, then what's the point bothering?

All in all, not a good word was to be heard for the Green Deal. I was almost beginning to feel sorry for it by the end of the day. Almost, but not quite.

18 May 2012

Should we re-nationalise the utility companies?

I've done the conservatory tax to death. On its own, it's perhaps not the biggest of stories and doesn't rate more than a footnote in the annals of the political machinations of the Coalition. But the problem is that it's not on its own. It's symptomatic of a whole raft of fudged decisions and misunderstanding which are beginning to taste of a deep rooted crisis in our energy policies.

On the plus side, we have in force a Climate Change Act which commits us to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. We are, apparently, just about the only country to have done this. But as far as the plus side goes, that's just about it. I quite fail to see exactly who will be held responsible for us failing to meet this "legally binding target." But, despite this conundrum, it does at least show that the government of the day understands the nature of the problem facing us with climate change and carbon emissions.

But the big problem is how do we get from A to Z. How do we bring about an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050? This is where the roadmaps come in. They offer the opportunity to map out a strategy to power society in a less carbon-intensive way.

Now you can take two approaches to energy roadmaps. You can meticulously map out scenarios for every form of energy use you can think of from cooking to commuting, pointing out just where improvements can and cannot be made. Or you can take a broad brush approach and just reduce the amounts of carbon we are allowed to burn each year and let society organise itself as best it can. Having been studying several of the micro-management roadmaps over the past year or so, I have come to the conclusion that the latter approach is preferable. The basic problem that cannot be addressed by the white-box, micro-approach is that we have no idea how much energy we will have in 2050, nor what price it will be, and without this information we can't begin to make sense of what we should be doing in the lead up to 2050.

A good example of this is the issue of the Green Deal and the retrofitting of insulation to our existing housing stock. Technically, we can do it to any standard, from simply filling up existing cavities, to undertaking radical Passivhaus-style retrofits. The difference in cost is maybe a few hundred pounds per house for the former, or a sum equivalent to rebuilding the entire house from scratch for the latter. Or, indeed, we could head somewhere in between these two extremes. But without knowing the cost of low-carbon energy in 2050, we can't make an informed decision about which way to go.

So we end up with a miasma of polices that sound like they are pointing generally in the right direction, but which in reality no one has a clue about. The Green Deal is a perfect example of this. Under it, you'll be able to borrow money for home energy improvements and you will be able to pay them off by adding the repayments onto your future energy bills. The idea — the Golden Rule, no less — is that your future fuel savings will more than compensate for the cost of the repayments added onto your fuel bills.

But there will be no guarantees about the cost of energy in the future, nor about whether the work carried out on your house will actually deliver the savings promised. The Green Deal pretends to be a hard-headed business decision, but it's no such thing, because the outcome is so tenuous.

Or take nuclear power. It's future is also in doubt and the underlying issue is surprisingly similar. Whilst businesses can calculate how much it will cost to bring a new power station on stream, they can't count on there being a sensible return because no one will guarantee them a price for the electricity they will produce. To do so is said to be anti-competitive, to be rigging the market or, as some green groups claim, to represent a subsidy. So the one form of baseload low carbon power that we know is technically feasible is unable to make any progress in the current environment, not because of people's dread fear of there being another Fukushima but because governments won't provide any guarantee that the product will be sellable.

No wonder all the energy companies are having second thoughts about new nukes. It's a bit like building a new hospital or school under a PFI scheme but without any forward contract indicating that the government would ever pay for it. Energy is seen differently: it's not a social good, like health or education, but a marketable product which we have to buy.

Or at least until people can no longer afford to pay for it. In fact, we have a new category of distress, fuel poverty, as if this is different to food poverty or clothing poverty, or just plain poverty.

And here we stumble upon the very crux of the problem. Much of the ongoing discussion about the Green Deal (and all the other energy subsidies that are flying around at the moment) centres on whether they are regressive, in effect transfers of money from the poor to the rich. It tends to be the rich that do things like do up houses and fit solar panels and to date much of this work has been paid for by hidden taxes loaded onto our fuel bills. Actually, there isn't much of a discussion to be had here because the answer is clear cut — yes, they are regressive, at least in the way they have been formulated to date.

Somehow the idea has taken root that the changes to our energy-burning habits must be funded from our existing energy consumption (i.e. our utility bills), a prime example of a hypothecated tax, and a prime example of why hypothecated taxes are not such a good idea. No one insists that the money raised from motoring taxes should all be spent on roads, or even that National Insurance should all be spent on pensions. So just why has the idea taken root that subsidies for low carbon energy or energy efficiency measures must come from our burning of high carbon energy? If these goals are socially desirable (which they are), then it's plain wrong to load them onto utility bills at a time when utility bills are already very high. People can see the connection, and the hoped-for improvements very quickly become unpopular.

In essence, energy policy is now trapped somewhere between the old Thatcherite dream of it being a privatised commodity and the new reality of it becoming a social good, like the NHS or the education system. Left to the market, it will continue to burn oil and gas, and exploit shale gas and tar sands and whatever else is around to keep the fires burning. But it will simultaneously be pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, as if there is no tomorrow. Capital intensive projects like nukes and offshore windfarms and housing retrofits will be be ignored because the financial outcomes are too unpredictable, and just raising taxes on fossil fuels to pay for capital intensive low-carbon projects is becoming self-defeating.

Which begs the question, is it time to remove the utility companies from the market and make them, temporarily at least, more like the NHS? It seems politically completely off the radar, but it would enable the big infrastructure decisions to be made with long term planning in mind. If coupled with a guarantee to keep people warm through the winter (isn't that a social good to rank alongside the work of the NHS?) and to engineer a switchover to low-carbon power by 2050 at a price which wouldn't cripple the economy, then it makes sense. At least it makes more sense than allowing the current market failure to continue unabated.

After 2050, the utility companies could once again be sold off with a proviso that they could never again make money by burning fossil fuels. We did it for the banks. Arguably, this is more important.

20 Apr 2012

Conservatory Tax: what happens next?

The press story about the Conservatory Tax seems to have died down. It was perhaps a ten day wonder and it appears to be game set and match to the Daily Mail. There may be a few further rumbles along the way, but the way press fever works in this country there is a good chance that none of the Sunday's will run with it and by this time next week everyone will have forgotten about it and will be focussing on something new.

But just before we all forget it, I'd like to make a few further comments, and add a few pointers.

• The heart of the issue was to do with a consultation exercise on Part L of the building regs, essentially whether or not to include a requirement for consequential improvements (CI) for those improving and/or extending their homes.

• It had precious little to do with conservatories (which are rarely classed as extensions), nor was it to do with tax, but the Mail chose to christen the whole episode the Green Conservatory Tax. The name has stuck, which adds to the irony if nothing else.

• It was also only indirectly related to the Green Deal, which is essentially a financing option for those wanting to undertake green improvements. But not many people understood the differences between Part L's CI and the Green Deal. As far as Mail readers were concerned, they were both green and therefore both bound to be expensive.

• The case for CI stands on its own. It doesn't need the Green Deal to help pay for it, anymore than complying with any other aspect of building regs requires special financing. But the consultation muddies the water by suggesting that CI might be paid for by using the Green Deal. This, to my mind, was a mistake, because it is ceding the high ground of building reg compliance and intimating that CI was too bitter a pill to swallow without some sugar coating.

• It also ties CI to the Green Deal. What if the Green Deal ends? That would lead to us having an unenforceable building reg. By the way, lovely summary of Green Deal here on Casey's blog.

• The CI triggers were muddy. Having to undertake CI when your boiler has just blown up and needs replacing is not a good policy. It gets up my nose, so can't fault the Daily Mail for highlighting it. An own goal. There should be some simple to understand, justifiable CI trigger. I would suggest that if you are increasing the heated are of the house, then you have to undertake CI. A stricter one would be that the overall heat loss performance of the house shouldn't be any different before and after your extension is built. Now that would be hard sell.

• The element of compulsion in CI remains thorny, although it's not quite as novel as people initially imagine. There are lots of examples of the building regs compelling people to undertake work they might not care to do, and sometimes this goes on inside the existing house rather than being confined to new works (think loft conversions meeting fire regs).

• One possible alternative might be to offer trade-offs. For instance: you can build your extension to 2016 standards (might cost you are extra £2,000, with much wider walls) or you can build it to 2010 standards and spend £2,000 on CI inside the existing house.

• Another option might be to make greater use of Energy Performance Certificates and say that, if you want to extend, you must upgrade the overall energy performance of the house, say from E to C. EPCs are in theory a great tool to use to upgrade the housing stock, but they are hardly being used at all: in fact they are widely derided for being pointless.

• Finally, it's worth saying that all these policy instruments (and that includes Part L in its entirety, Green Deal, EPCs, FITs, RHI, you name it) are substitutes for a simple effective carbon tax. As long as we embrace piecemeal solutions to the fundamental problem of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, we are likely to end up with flawed policy levers which get people very excited (both for and against) but are never going to achieve their goals.

18 Apr 2012

Conservatory Tax: Day 10, the plot thickens

The Conservatory Tax story broke on Easter Monday in the Daily Mail. That's 10 days ago. If you need to catch up, check out the last three blog posts on this site. By the weekend, both the Mail and the Telegraph were full of rumours of a "large Tory revolt" against Part L's consequential improvement proposals. No one was directly quoted.

Then on Monday 16 April, exactly one week after the initial story, the Telegraph and the Mail publish news that consequential improvements have been scrapped as a result of a "massive Tory backlash", and the next day the Mail prints a more revealing story that David Cameron himself thinks the whole idea was bonkers.

Drill deeper an it appears something very strange is going on here. This is a change of policy, no doubt about it. On Feb 7, Andrew Stunnell, the Lib Dem minister in charge of building regulations, made a speech at the BRE stating that consequential improvements were definitely going to happen. Stunnell said: "It's the grand old Duke of York of building regulations policy... but this time we're going to do it." This refers to the fact that twice before consequential improvements have been mooted in consultation, but never made it passed the finishing post into the published Part L.

But it now appears that Stunnell has been humiliated. "Cameron's spokesman", quoted in the Mail, says "This is a bonkers proposal and the Prime Minister frankly doesn’t understand how it got into the consultation document in the first place." Had he not thought to ask Stunnell? Does he really not have a clue what his ministers are up to? How embarrassing for both Cameron and Stunnell.

Cameron's source continues: "He is not going to allow a situation where someone who wants to do a bit of home improvement is forced to pay another 10 per cent on top."

Is this really a source close to Mr Cameron? Or Cameron himself hiding behind journalistic etiquette? Whoever uttered these words, it sounds like some bloke leaning over the bar at the Dog & Duck having a rant. Like "I only wanted to knock the two rooms into one. Bloody building inspector insisted I put a beam in between: cost an arm and a leg." Or "The sod made us put fire doors on the bedrooms when we did the loft. It was that or sprinklers. Jeezzus, I'm not made of money."

Then the source let's out "We’re all for going green but this is a ridiculous idea, innit." OK. I added the "innit", but you can almost hear it anyway. This is now apparently how government policy is being formulated. We are talking building regulations here, not Abu Qatada.

The old fashioned way of determining building regs went thus. Committees beaver away for months, civil servants draft and redraft documents, consultations get launched, reviews are undertaken and, yes, lobbying goes on behind the scenes. This is how every building regulation we have ever made has been shaped (till now).

Then you have the new way. The Daily Mail blows up a scare story out of almost nothing and 8 days later you have a source close to Mr Cameron spiking the carefully laid proposals, in a interview that's not even an interview. No official word on the change in policy has appeared anywhere on government websites or dispatches. It's all been conducted through the Mail.

And, stranger still, rather than congratulating the Prime Minister on "seeing sense", the Mail then goes and lambasts him for making another U-turn. In the very same article. U turn No 9; time taken to complete U-turn = one week.

It really does make you wonder who the hell is running this country. Is the Mail's agenda to attack any piece of environmental legislation they can uncover, or is it simply to humiliate the Prime Minister. Or both? Not only do they make Cameron sound like a half-wit, but they then go and slap him about for being a half-wit.

There are dozens of things Cameron could have said which wouldn't have pushed him into a corner like this. Such as "We are aware some of the proposals are controversial but it's only a consultation exercise and we will be looking closely how best to press ahead in the coming months." OK, this sounds a bit boring and staid, but it's got to be a bit better than "it's bonkers" and "I've no idea how this came about." That is just so pathetic it's embarrassing.

Something went on between Whitehall and Kensington High Street, home of the Daily Mail, but we outside the Westminster bubble are not party to it. There is more than a whiff of authenticity about it all because Downing St has come out and said they still support the Green Deal: if they supported Part L's consequential improvements as well, they would have said so, but instead there has been a stony silence.

What really pisses me off is that this is all happening in the midst of the Leveson enquiry which has a brief to look at the relationship between press and politicians. Here we have a prime example of the press interfering with due political process. They have barged in, demanded a forum with a menu of half-baked, ill-conceived criticisms, ridden roughshod over all other consultees, and have seen the government cave into their demands in the space of a week.

There could of course be more to this story. Far from being the instigator, the Mail may have been acting on behalf of disaffected Tories looking for a way to overturn these "unpopular proposals." But adding a level of conspiracy to the proceedings only makes matters worse. Either way, the verdict is damning. This is no way to run a railroad.

Finally, a lovely piece in the Guardian about what's been happening in Uttlesford DC for the past five years, where consequential improvements via planning permissions have been hailed a great success by the Tory-led council. And Uttlesford is not alone. I know of at least one other council, Forest of Dean, where similar schemes have been running and I suspect there may be more.

Consequential improvements are nothing new nor scary. You could argue that they underpin the entire edifice that is the building regulations, by making people go that extra mile to get things right. If you want to build a roof, brace it properly so it doesn't collapse. If you want a toilet, make sure it's vented so it doesn't smell. If you are putting in stairs, make sure people can get up and down them safely. And if you are making major alterations to your house, make sure you can afford to heat it. Just why is there a "massive Tory revolt"?

17 Apr 2012

The Case for Consequential Improvements

From the debate so far, you'd think that consequential improvements were designed purely and simply to get up the noses of aspirational, squeezed-middle, Daily Mail reading home improvers. They weren't. There is a good case for them and it's not being heard.

At the heart of the matter is the question of energy saving and the law of diminishing returns. It states that the first inch of so of insulation saves a mass of energy, but each subsequent inch saves less than the one before. This is expressed in mathematical terms in U value calculations which show that if you want to halve the heat loss, you have to double the amount of insulation.

It's relatively easy to halve the heat loss of an existing wall with no insulation in it. Adding around 50mm of insulation will reduce the U value from around 1.2 to around 0.6 (that's half). It's much more demanding to halve the heat loss in an extension which is being built to modern standards: getting a wall from a U value of, say, 0.3 down to 0.15 would involve widening the cavity from around 80mm to nearly 200mm, and forking out for 120mm extra insulation. There are other details to consider here as well, but for simplicities sake, I'll ignore them.

In doing this, your extension may have halved its energy loss but it's done it from a much lower starting point. The total energy saved in the new extension will be far less than you might save in the existing house where you've only had to add 50mm of insulation. You've also, incidentally, lost a significant floor area from your extension as the walls have to be so much wider to cope with all that insulation.

The financial calculations are even more compelling. Adding 120mm of extra insulation onto a 30m2 extension is complex and relatively expensive: it could easily add a couple of thousand onto build costs. Cavity wall insulation on an existing house usually costs between £300 and £500. The cavity wall insulation will result in far more energy being saved, and have a far greater effect on fuel bills. Like an order of magnitude.

Financially, it's a no brainer. It makes sense to insist that the existing house is upgraded rather than pouring money into building an ultra-low-energy extension.

There is more. Any energy saving you might hope to get in the newly-built extension will be mostly lost via the existing house, meaning that the expensively constructed low-energy extension will probably not save any appreciable amount of energy at all. And the whole house now risks being uncomfortable to live in, neither fish nor fowl. It would be like wearing a coat where the left side is made of a thin cotton and the right side of thick sheepskin. What a crazy design? Who would choose such a coat? Who would choose to live in such a house?

Like it or not, consequential improvements make sense, at least when the house is being extended. If it was to really have teeth, Part L would be insisting that anyone extending the heated floor area of an existing house should ensure that the overall heat loss of the new should be no more than the old. Now that would be draconian (but it would also make a lot of sense).

As it stands, the suggestions for improvements as set out in the Part L consultation are very watered down so that only four actions are required:
• cavity wall insulation (only if you've got an unfilled cavity)
• extra loft insulation (big deal)
• cylinder lagging (again, it's a nothing job, and over half the country doesn't even have a cylinder, they use a combi)
• draft proofing

It's very hard to see this lot costing £10,000 for anyone, unless you happen to own a huge country house. It's hard to see it costing much more than a grand on most homes. With or without the Green Deal, it's not going to be very expensive to install these and it makes sense it terms of overall comfort, if nothing else.

Up till now, Part L has tried to maintain some sort of parity of standards between new build and extensions, but it's reached the point when the two are about to separate because (as discussed) it makes little sense to build extensions to new build standards if the existing house is a drafty old pile. What should Part L do for extensions? Should it insist that they continue to ape new build standards (cost maybe £2,000 per extension, energy saving negligible) or should it branch out and insist that the equivalent money is spent in the existing house? The answer is obvious: consequential improvements are logical, sensible and justifiable.

200,000 extensions a year represents a huge floor area, comparable with the floor area arriving via newly built homes each year. Are we just going to give up on trying to get these homes fit for the 21st century? High energy bills are not going to go away anytime soon and Part L is one of the very few tools at the government's disposal to protect people from them. Ditch consequential improvements and you leave a gaping hole in energy policy.

As a footnote, I do think it was a mistake to add replacement windows and boilers as triggers for consequential improvements. I wonder whether they were placed in the consultation as a negotiating ploy, so that something could be conceded before the final version of Part L was published. If so, it has backfired badly. The principle of consequential improvements should be simple to grasp: if you chose to extend the heated envelope, you must improve the energy performance of the existing house. Adding window and boiler replacement as triggers muddied the simplicity of this golden rule.

16 Apr 2012

The Green Conservatory Tax: Part 2

It's been an interesting few days since the Daily Mail "broke" the story of the "Green Conservatory Tax" a week ago. The right wing press has laid into the story with predictable glee, having discovered yet another front on which to wage war with the green conspiracy.

The Green Deal has also come under fire and the Telegraph in particular is keen to promote the idea that there is now a split between the Tories and the LibDems over this.

Is there really a split? The Telegraph fingers Pickles, Shapps and Grayling as members of the anti-red tape Osborne growth group. The problem with this is that whilst consequential improvements might be seen as classic red-tape, they are also pro-growth. And the policy itself arises from a building regs consultation exercise, emanating from the DCLG, home to both Pickles and Shapps. Can these ministers have only just come across the whole issue of consequential improvements? I think not.

Unlike the press themselves. The Mail's follow up story on the Green Conservatory Tax, linked here, clearly shows a conservatory that would be exempt from consequential improvements. Look closely at the back and you can see an open leaf of a pair of French Doors, indicating that here you have a conservatory built outside the heated envelope, and thus not effected by Part L.

Far from being a "tax on aspiration", it's a policy designed to deal something about high heating bills. Informal polling of dozens of selfbuilders at the Homebuilding & Renovating show two weeks ago convinces me that low heating bills are now rather more of a middle class aspiration than conservatories.

11 Apr 2012

On the "Green Tax on Conservatories"

Consultations on Part L, the Energy Efficiency Regs for England & Wales, don't normally gather much in the way of newspaper coverage. They are very technical, very nerdy and usually only read by people within the industry.

Just about the most contentious issue for Part L for the past two iterations has been whether or not to include so-called consequential improvements which would require people making alterations to their houses to carry out additional works to upgrade the energy performance of the rest of the house.

In 2005 it was mooted in the consultation, only to be dropped from the final document. The same thing happened in 2008. The reason was the Daily Mail effect. Ministers feared being torn to shreds by the press if they put through such measures.

Meanwhile, one of two local authorities started insisting on consequential improvements being carried out, making it a condition of planning permissions for extensions. No one batted an eyelid. And somewhere along the line, something very similar slipped into Part L for when roof repairs are to be carried out. Not a squeak from the press about this. People just comply.

So when the latest Part L consultation came out, yet again consequential improvements for domestic properties were back in, and this time the building regs minister Andrew Stunnell went on record as saying they wouldn't be dropped in the final version of Part L. About time, said the sustainerati.

And then bang on cue, the Daily Mail pounced. It went front page this past Easter Monday. It's here, with no less than 807 reader comments. It was followed here in the Telegraph. And here by Christopher Booker. And it got onto Radio 4 as well, where Tory MP Tim Yeo was critical.

Now one wonders exactly why this story hit the headlines on Easter Monday. It was a classic quiet news day, after a wet Easter holiday, a time when lots of people were probably thinking of driving off the the garden centre and spending some money. But, on the other hand, this is not investigative journalism. The consultation has been out since 31st January and the calls for responses on the controversial consequential improvements clauses closed on March 27. If the Mail had really wanted to launch of people's campaign against the changes, it could have run its headline before the consultation period ended.

And secondly, their story is full of mistakes. Let's go through them.

1) Conservatories. It's headlined "Green Tax on Conservatories." But in reality most conservatories will not be affected by this proposal. The typical bolt-on conservatory that you might pick up at a garden centre will not be subject to this levy, anymore than your greenhouse or your garden shed. Only when openings in the existing house are made and the conservatory becomes part of the heated envelope does Part L come into play, because at this point you have turned a conservatory into a glazed extension. It's worth noting that all three press stories use Conservatory Tax in their headlines.

2) Tax. You are being asked to comply with building regulations. That is a legal requirement. But it's not a tax.

3) Mandatory 10% levy. The idea is that it shall be mandatory but if there is nothing sensible to spend it on then it won't be enforced. There are only four measures they want you to consider, being loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, cylinder lagging and draft proofing. If you lived in a house with a combi, solid walls and a loft conversion, then the only thing they could ask you to do would be draft proof. And if you already had some fairly decent draft proofing, you could tell them to get on their bike. The improvement measures have to be sensible and appropriate. They shouldn't cost more than 10% of the main body of works. At least that what the consultation says.

4) The tone.

"Millions of householders who want to build a conservatory, replace a broken boiler or install new windows will be forced to spend hundreds of pounds more on ‘green’ projects."

Well the conservatory bit is wrong, but the broken boiler and new windows bits are essentially right. However the impression is that this is a done deal. It's not: it's just a consultation exercise. This crucial bit of information is missing.

"They will not be permitted to carry out the home improvement or repair unless they agree to fork out for measures such as loft or wall insulation."

I'm not sure this is true, but it does actually raise a very good point. What if someone refuses to have cavity wall insulation carried out? There are lots of people who are convinced it's a bad idea.

"The work is expected to add ten per cent to the cost of any building project in the home." The 10% figure is in the consultation. It's a maximum. And it won't apply to "any building project in the home", rather notifiable extensions, loft conversions and garage conversions. That's all. Work such as new kitchen or bathrooms, knocking walls down, changing floors, anything in the garden (including conservatories) is not affected by these measures.

So much for the facts. The article is inaccurate and it's scaremongering. The Booker one is far worse (but that's to be expected - he has form). But you only have to trawl through some of the comments to realise that it's scored a bullseye. The Daily Mail prides itself on stirring middle England and stirred it it has. And it does raise some difficult issues.

How exactly do you enforce people to undertake this extra work? If your boiler needs replacing, it's often a distress purchase. You want it done quickly and cheaply. The plumber will normally sign it off as building regs compliant (the good ol competent person scheme at work). Are they going to be in a position to demand that you then carry out some draft proofing? A bit cheeky, don't you think?

Or if you do a loft conversion, you will be insulating the roof before you put the plasterboard in place, so won't you have carried out some improvements already?

And would we end up with crews of replacement window businesses that throw cavity wall insulation in for free? Just imagine how good they will be. They won't.

The attempts to link this all to the Green Deal also look a bit flakey to me. That's political window dressing, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

My guess is that the requirement for additional work when replacing boilers or windows will be dropped. However well intentioned they might be, they must be largely unenforceable. The extension requirements will make it through, because they sort of make sense because the works are very much elective and they involve having contractors crawling over your house in any event. The conservatory bit? well, it's a red herring.

That's not to say that conservatories aren't a contentious issue in Part L circles because they are also very hard to police. People build bolt-ons and then knock through so that they end up sucking heat out of the existing house. Thermally, they can be a real disaster. But can you legislate for such actions? After all, you can insist on triple glazing everywhere if you want to, but you can't force people to close their windows at night. My pdf word search tells me that conservatories don't rate a single mention in the consultation, which suggests to me that the policy wonks don't think we can go any further with them.

As Part L gets tighter and tighter, these types of issues become more apparent. Whilst we can legislate till the cows come home to make new homes perform like a Thermos, we are left with this legacy of 25 million leaky homes which are very hard to improve. Part L recognises this by dividing itself into two parts, A for new builds and B for extensions and renovations. The reason the consequential improvements section is in section B is because it's already so far behind A in what is technically achievable that it's embarrassing. It now looks like in future the limits to what B may be able to insist on is going to be a political rather than technical.

3 Apr 2012

The Future of Heating?

DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change) have published a document called The Future of Heating. It's what you might call a partial roadmap (yes, another one) describing how we might heat our homes and fire up what's left of our industry by 2050. I've spent a day immersed in it and have come away with some strange feelings.

It strikes me as a very strange document. It wings its way through 106 pages (typical for the genre) and goes into a fair amount of detail about many of the options facing us. Every now and then it asks for feedback, preferably evidence or experience-based. Nothing wrong with that, except that its never entirely clear whether its a narrative, a policy document or a consultation exercise. And its not entirely clear what sort of feedback they are looking for. Some of it very general, other questions are very specific.

I'm afraid I can't be much help on either front. For instance, I don't have experience of heat networks and I can't demonstrate the costs and benefits of them in reducing emissions, fuel poverty and/or fuel consumption. Neither can I tell you whether its a good idea to regulate the supply of heat through the networks. I feel so useless.

But another part of me feels that this document is actually designed to make me feel useless, because it seems to have everything under control. They don't need to know what little I know about heat networks because some geek at DECC has already been out there and done some research, and if you piece all this research together into one document, bugger me if you don't have a fully fledged strategy for a low carbon 2050. Yippee.

Only I didn't go Yippee at all. Instead I was left wondering about all the very basic questions they haven't asked. Like how much low carbon energy we will have to play with in 2050? And what will it cost? Without this information, every other policy set out in this document is nothing but conjecture.

Take §27 in the Exec Summary. It starts Reducing our demand for heat is a highly cost effective way of cutting emissions from buildings. Well, is it? No evidence is given to support this statement, it is just assumed to be the case. It might be cost effective to reduce demand by a little bit, but very expensive to reduce it by a lot (more than likely in fact). And without having some idea of what low carbon power sources will be available and how much they will cost, the cost-effectiveness of demand reduction is nothing more than guesswork.

I could go on, but it would labour the point. To be fair, the purpose of the document is to look at the many ways there are of being efficient with heat, from undertaking extreme retrofits to building heat networks and creating inter-seasonal heat stores. Even low carbon cooking gets a look-in. It's nothing if not a thorough review of all the options that are potentially there.

But it's all just a bit weightless. Without some way of knowing what energy will cost, we have no way of making any judgements about what will be worth doing, and what we can safely discard. The document ends up being nothing more than a long list of possible solutions, mixed in with boundless good intentions. We are informed that the grid will be decarbonised, but aren't told how much electricity it will supply. Nor are we informed whether we can use this electricity directly for heating, though we are given a hefty nod in that direction by the many hints dropped that heat pumps are about to save us all.

Instead, we are informed that the Green Deal, the Energy Company Obligation and Smart Meters will remove upfront costs, help vulnerable consumers and enable people to make the best use of their energy. Maybe, but at this point it starts to read like an election manifesto, and I begin to loose the will to carry on reading.....