APSE Energy Briefing 5/19 – The 'Nearly Zero' Requirements for New Public Buildings And the Government's Real Position on this Issue - APSE Briefing

7 March 2019

In APSE Energy Briefing 5/19 Charlotte Banks, the APSE Energy Research and Project Officer, explained the implications of the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which came into force in January of this year.

She explained that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government had written to local authorities in England to remind them that Regulation 25B of the Building Regulations 2010 brought this provision into effect in the UK. Essentially, under this provision all new public buildings have to achieve nearly zero energy standards.

Nearly zero energy is where a public building has a very low energy requirement in the first place, usually achieved by a ‘fabric first’ approach to design and energy efficiency, with a very significant amount of what small amount of energy that is required being provided from renewables.

This requirement is one that most local authorities would support in any event, but the Government’s response demonstrates its inadequate approach to energy efficiency in buildings generally. This is also apparent from its abolition of the zero carbon buildings policy some years ago and its refusal to give local authorities certainty around their powers to impose standards higher than Building Regulations on all new buildings in their areas. The contents of the letter from DCLG suggest that the Government has identified a convenient ‘fix’ to this particular problem, in order to reach a position consonant with its wider position on energy efficiency, without genuinely making strenuous and necessary efforts to deal with the problem.

The starting point is the Government’s own aspirations in relation to Energy Efficiency, albeit when it was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There, targets were set for the achievement of zero carbon buildings, with public sector leading the way.  Aside from all homes to be zero carbon by 2016, targets were set for all schools to be zero carbon by 2016 also, closely followed by all other buildings in the central government estate by 2018 and all non domestic buildings by 2019. These were bold targets, forged in the certainty that a huge percentage of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions emanate from buildings.

The UK Green Building Council and others spent ten years preparing for such provisions and produced world class guidance and standards on zero carbon buildings. But the Government’s resolve was wavering after a General Election delivered the Conservatives back into sole Government. Firstly, for domestic buildings they changed the definition of zero carbon to exclude appliances in the home, which effectively watered down its provisions. Then in George Osbourne’s ‘Fixing the Foundations’ publication (when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer) it abolished the requirement for zero carbon buildings completely. Of all the so-called ‘green’ provisions consigned to the bonfire when the Conservatives got back into power, this was widely regarded to be the most devastating. Since then, energy efficiency has been put back years.

The Government’s second Achilles heel in relation to this area is that the Building Regulations were due to be updated in 2016 but this was postponed. Each time new Building Regulations were passed, the energy efficiency and renewable energy requirements had been tightened. The delay in updating the Building Regulations was seen to be part of a backlash by the building industry resistant to the move towards better standards of green building. It seemed as though the Government was influenced by this outdated and deeply conflicted view from a building industry with a track record of building to poor standards and for lowest cost. Such an approach will not help the UK reach its climate change targets under the Climate Change Act 2008.

So this latest guidance, which effectively says if you follow Building Regulations you will have complied with the new EU requirements can only be described as cynical in the extreme. Building Regulations are way behind where they should be and it is highly questionable whether building to those standards today can really be classed as even approaching the ‘nearly zero energy buildings’ standard.

The final point is that APSE Energy recently published an updated Briefing Note on powers of local authorities to require standards of energy efficiency greater than Building Regulations and the ability to require higher on site renewable energy provision. This is titled ‘The Merton Rule’ and was published in March 2019, following further developments. The report highlights the conflict in Government advice, principally around the notorious Eric Pickles Ministerial Statement of 25 March 2015, which the Government is fully aware has resulted in many authorities taking the view (erroneously in our opinion) that they cannot impose higher standards. This has resulted in lower standards than those that should apply being adopted in many areas of the country.

The APSE Energy report confirms that as the Deregulation Act 2015 has not yet been brought into full legal effect across all areas, authorities are legally entitled to ask developers for higher standards of energy efficiency than those in Building Regulations and can also set their own percentage of energy that has to be generated on site from renewable sources.

So this latest guidance from DCLG shows how outdated the Government is on energy efficiency and its inability to properly grasp this issue.  The Committee on Climate Change has continually pointed out the ticking timebomb of energy efficiency in buildings in the UK and sadly this shows no sign of changing.

Stephen Cirell


11 March 2019

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