This is a time of change in UK climate policy. There are many of us with a keen interest in tackling climate change but does anyone else feel like the government fall short of producing effective green policies?

In our previous blog, we’ve explained the recent Government policy changes that have led to the scrapping of the Zero Carbon Hub and the lack of national zero-carbon home building standards. Let us follow on here by providing a policy context from the past 50 years. An understanding of our past allows us to draw on lessons learnt to shape the policy decisions of our future.

But back to the present…

Recent news in the sustainable building industry has included the hype of the Paris Agreement last December amongst the slaughtering of environmental policies by the new government.  It’s like we win one and then lose more?

But seeing as worldwide interest in climate change has grown from pretty much nothing in the last 50 years, surely we have seen some improvement in building performance?  Let’s look back over the key national policies which have shaped the construction industry and the development of energy efficient homes…


1965 – It seems apt to begin with the introduction of the first Building Regulations for England and Wales, over 50 years ago.  Interestingly, the Building Regulations did include u-values: a rather leaky 1.7 for walls and 1.4 for ceilings; not doing much for the conservation of fossil fuels – which by the way were abundant as in 1965 BP were the first to strike oil in the North Sea.

1984The Building Act consolidated numerous legislations about buildings over the years on the design and construction of buildings and gave more power to the government to enforce the building regulations.  One year later, for the first time ever, the building regulations include a Part L: Conservation of Fuel and Power in Buildings.  This was by no means our environmental issues solved, but merely recognised that our gas and coal weren’t limitless.

Internationally, this climate change thing was beginning to get recognised later in the 1980s with IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientific studies on anthropogenic climate change and its impacts; and how to mitigate and adapt to it.

1990s – You probably think by now things are progressing pretty slowly, and you wouldn’t be wrong.  However, let us look from an international perspective for a moment… As the IPCC studies had showed up some possible future problems with anthropogenic climate change and reversing the effects would be difficult, the general thought was that action should be taken.  TheUnited Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change emerged in 1994, who set up the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 which made many countries commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Such commitments gradually sunk into the European Union and into UK policy, leading into some rather busy years ahead…

2003 – The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) came into force at the start of what proved to be an important year for UK environmental policy.  The EPBD, pushed forward by the European Union, called for the UK to introduce a standardised methodology for the assessment of energy performance in buildings, improvement of buildings by the implementation of minimum performance standards and a rating system for constructed buildings.  Such a demanding task took the UK a number of years to implement.

Meanwhile, back across the channel, the UK government were getting nervous about the fact that the UK will start to be a net importer of gas and electricity by the end of the decade.  Also, they better do something following that Kyoto Protocol they signed in 1997, and limit greenhouse gas emissions against 1990 levels.  As a result, the UK government proudly presented their Energy White Paper to detail their new energy policy to protect our energy security, the environment and our economic growth, all at the same time.  Clever, although perhaps ambitious.  And it receives much expert attention…

On a local level, 2003 also saw the first planning policy which required a 10% renewable energy generation for commercial developments over 1000m2– in the London Borough of Merton. You could say the borough was a pioneer of the environmental era- the first time buildings were made to significantly reduce their CO2 emissions, as “The Merton Rule” gradually became adopted across London boroughs.

2004 – More happening in London as the Greater London Authority reveals the first ever London Plan.  A regional planning document it may be, but with so much development in London, it needed to be done correctly, with aim of making it a “green” city.

2006 –Part L of the building regulations receives a face lift and is the year “Conservation of Fuel and Power in Buildings” finally got mean.  An impact of the EPBD no doubt, Part L was now presented as a 4-part series- remember the EPBD wanted minimum energy efficiency standards and an assessment methodology to be implemented? Well this was it: L1A, L1B, L2A and L2B.  They enforced the use of SAP for dwellings and SBEM for other buildings.  Tougher targets were set in the consecutive 2010 and 2014 building regulations.

With a strong set of regulations in place, the labour government famously announced their Zero Carbon Homes policy.  This targeted 2016 as the year all new homes would be zero carbon (and 2019 for commercial buildings).

2007Introduction of the Energy Performance Certificate, another EPBD offspring.  All homes would now be labelled with an energy score to represent how energy efficient the property is. The introduction of the Code for Sustainable Homes certification would also lead the path towards zero carbon.

Also, 2007 sees the formation of the UK Green Building Council to support the construction and property industry in a sustainable built environment.

2008 – A busy year. 2008 saw the introduction of the Climate Change Act. Labour pushed in some tough targets- 80% carbon emissions by 2050.  Very impressive.  Also included were carbon budgets to keep us on track to 2050, the setting up of the Committee of Climate Change and also the Zero Carbon Hub to support the design and development of zero carbon homes in the UK.

To assist local authorities, the government published their Planning Policy Statement requiring all councils in England and Wales to adopt the Merton Rule policy, as well as to improve energy efficiency standards over and above those required by the building regulations.  This also meant updating the London Plan.

In other news, XCO2 Energy is founded.  Massive win for the future of sustainable buildings.  Many other consultancies pop up across the UK and multi-disciplinary firms start up sustainability teams.

2010 – the market in the UK for renewables, especially PVs, received a big boost with the introduction of Feed in Tariffs, a rather generous financial incentive for renewable technologies by the secretary of energy and climate change at the time.  Sadly, it only took the new coalition one year to begin cutting it back to the measly amount it is today.

2011 – the London Plan receives further updates.

2015 – As a final act of the coalition government, the Code for Sustainable Homes assessment is abolished.


Let us not forget that since 1965 the building regulations have remained the guiding force of better buildings.  They have also evolved over time to tackle the issues of the era- Part L for example has been a defining step forward for improving the energy performance of buildings. Although in no way perfect (see Performance Gap for more details) they have gently pushed developments by imposing a sound intention of conserving heat and power.

No doubt the building regulations will change, but let them continue to move developments forward into a greener future.  The expectation is that the best elements from the abolished Code for Sustainable Homes will find its way into building regulations; or perhaps the building regulations will take on a more aggressive approach on reducing CO2 following the 2015 Paris Agreement.

We all want to be bold and set the road for zero carbon, but for some reason policies like that don’t last.  Perhaps smaller steps led by local authorities, like the Merton Rule are simpler to implement and are successful in spreading to national policy.

Some politicians set demanding targets which excite many of us and stimulate innovation, while other politicians cut them back for a multitude of reasons most of which I disagree with.  One thing which is certain- is that the future of building performance policy will be interesting.

Aside from policy, as individuals we all have an obligation to encourage sustainable design and I believe we are enthused about mitigating against climate change.  But without governmental support through policies, this will be near on impossible.

We need proactive climate policy in the future, but where shall we look for it?

This question and others will be debated at our Green Sky Thinking Event – ‘The Policy Gap – Bridging the Zero Carbon Void’, on Thursday 28th April, 6.30pm.  Listen, learn and contribute at this informal debate with an expert panel of policy influencers (UKGBC, Better Building Partnership, Green Alliance) and building professionals (AHR Architects, BAM and XCO2). Book your spot here.