Boris Johnson’s plan to build tens of thousands of new homes risks locking in high carbon emissions for decades to come, if they are built to today’s poor efficiency standards instead of being designed for net zero carbon.
The prime minister’s plans to “build, build, build” form the centrepiece of his “new deal” to lift Britain’s economy out of the coronavirus recession. About £12bn will go to building 180,000 new homes to relieve the housing crisis, while new hospitals and schools will be constructed to improve degraded public services.
But green campaigners and housing experts are concerned that if the new homes are built without raising efficiency standards, they will swiftly become a liability. Last week, the government’s statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, warned that the UK had already built about 1m new homes in recent years that will have to be expensively renovated to higher efficiency standards, in order to meet the target of net zero emissions by 2050.
The government cancelled the zero carbon homes standard in 2016, and the future homes standard, which is supposed to replace it, will not come into force until 2025.
Jenny Holland, a policy specialist at the UK Green Building Council, told the Guardian: “Although the prime minister has promised ‘beautiful low-carbon homes’ there is nothing in current government plans that will guarantee that. As currently drafted, the government’s plans would mean a home that would fail current building regulations because of poor fabric could pass the 2020 regulations as long as it had some form of low-carbon heating technology or [solar] PV installed.”
Current rules also allow developments where the builder obtained permission several years before to be built according to outdated standards, so that many of the homes built today can be built to even lower efficiency standards than are supposed to be allowed.
Rebecca Newsom, the head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said: “Without any explicit rules insisting they meet zero-carbon standards, the government’s eagerness to build, build, build will only add to the escalating climate crisis and burden new home owners with high heating bills and expensive retrofitting costs in years to come.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, condemned the plan as “another example of short-termism – locking in a problem which future generations, and governments, will have to sort out at much higher cost”.
Johnson also failed to set out any plans for improving the efficiency of existing homes. Britain’s homes are the draughtiest in Europe, and one of the country’s biggest sources of carbon dioxide, but simple steps such as insulation and better fittings would go a long way towards cutting emissions, and energy bills for the fuel-poor.
The Conservative manifesto contained a promise of £9.2bn to retrofit the UK’s homes, but there was no mention of this commitment in the prime minister’s speech on Tuesday. Economists and energy experts agree that refurbishing homes can be a “jobs machine” while boosting the economy through efficiency savings.
Ed Matthew, an associate director at the E3G thinktank, said: “This is the biggest and most important building challenge we face. A massive retrofitting programme to decarbonise UK homes can boost the economy, create over 200,000 jobs across every part of the UK, and reduce NHS costs [by providing warmer homes]. Now is the time to make it the UK’s top infrastructure priority. Its absence is a gaping chasm in the prime minister’s vision.”
Johnson’s plan disappointed green campaigners hoping that the target of net zero emissions by 2050 would be at the heart of the economic recovery strategy. Tree planting merited a mention, but was merely a re-statement of existing plans to plant 30,000 hectares a year, where green groups say about 50,000 hectares are needed. The £40m announced for trees is also thought to be too low, as about £350m is likely to be needed.
On transport, the prime minister reconfirmed commitments on net-zero buses and cycle networks, but also gave the thumbs-up to massive new road-building schemes that green groups fear will fuel further rises in emissions from transport, already one of the biggest sources of emissions and showing little sign of abating. There were no new incentives for electric vehicles, and little encouragement for renewable energy generation. The International Energy Agency has said renewable energy is one of the best ways for governments to create stable new jobs.
The prime minister’s references to “newt-counting delays” that he called “a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country” also raised concerns that protections for the natural world would be scrapped. The environment bill, which is supposed to reinforce in British law the same or higher protections for nature as those in the EU, has been delayed to later this year.
Martin Harper, the director of conservation at the RSPB nature charity, said: “It is a fundamental mistake to view species and environmental protections as a drag on our economy. Implemented well, these laws can guide good development … and maintain the economic value of sites and species they protect. We need an enlightened approach to rebooting our economy – one that puts action to restore nature and tackle climate change at the heart of the recovery.”
Some campaigners are hoping that the green recovery strategy that was almost entirely missing from Johnson’s “new deal” vision could be revived next week when the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, sets out his spending review.
Debbie Tripley, the director of environmental policy and advocacy at the WWF conservation charity, said: “Today’s announcements add up to very little in the face of the huge nature and climate crisis we’re facing. Much greater government spending and ambition is needed in the chancellor’s announcements next week if the UK is to reach net zero and restore our natural world. A true green recovery is good for the economy, for people and for our planet, and we need all recovery plans to be tested against that by the Treasury. Anything less risks setting us on the road to another global crisis.”