Do Local Authorities Really Want Sustainable Construction Powers?

Max Lempriere

When it comes to setting sustainable construction standards new research reveals English local authorities favour national regulation over local powers. 

National planning policy and building regulations have undergone considerable reform in recent years. The latest incarnation is embodied in the Housing Standards Review, (HSR) published in 2014. The HSR sought to consolidate the plethora of standards into national building regulations whilst making it harder for local authorities to introduce standards that supplement these national regulations in response to local needs or priorities. One area where local powers have been significantly curtailed by the HSR is in the sustainability and energy efficiency of homes.

Since the publication of Building A Greener Future and the Supplement to the Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change in 2007, local authorities have been able to set local standards on building sustainability to reflect local needs and priorities. Although options are provided in the HSR for local standard setting in a number of areas to supplement the revamped building regulations, this isn’t one of those. The extent to which sustainable construction targets can be set locally has thus been significantly curtailed. The response was predictably fierce. The Association for the Conservation for Energy remarked on the ‘political naivety’ and ‘shortsightedness’ associated with the decision. A report by the Environmental Audit Committee from November 2013 suggests that ‘this decision bulldozes local choice in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach designed to benefit developers who want to build homes on the cheap’.

Yet what do local authorities themselves think? The evidence points towards local authorities being against the idea of local standard setting in the area of energy-efficiency in buildings.

When asked in the HSR consultation whether sustainable construction standards should be incorporated into National Building Regulations (thus restricting local choice) an overwhelming number of local authorities responded in favor (46 of 69 responses). When asked their views on whether local authorities should have the powers to set ‘Merton Rule’ type policies (which mandate the minimum renewable energy use in a building) ‘a number of local planning authorities are also in favour of a review [of the Merton Rule type policies], who do not see a role for planning in decisions about the energy performance of houses’.

What’s more, as part of my on-going research into this area I have surveyed all local English local authorities. Only 50% have embraced the standard setting powers that they have had up until the HSR, and even then there are serious concerns over whether those local standards are being enforced.

An obvious question that arises from this is why? Why do local authorities propose a national Building Regulations led approach to sustainable construction standards? In the course of my research two factors have been raised.

First, many local authorities feel that the national debate on sustainable construction is in such flux that to expend resources on incorporating local standards is risky. Take Harrogate Borough Council for example, who took a proactive lead on introducing sustainable construction targets in their 2009 Local Plan. Subsequent changes to the planning framework published by central government in 2012 reformed the technicalities of local standard setting and in effect forced Harrogate to tear up their plan and start the process again. This obviously comes at considerable costs. When resources are already being stretched to breaking point the threat of having the rug pulled from under their feet is enough to put a lot of local authorities off the idea.

Second, local authorities are subject to strong external pressures from developers that prioritise growth over sustainability. Many lack the necessary internal capacity (whether in terms of expertise, institutional norms, pro-environment policy networks or dominant discourse favouring ecologism) to overcome these pressures. On that basis many consider any local powers a waste, because they can’t be fully exploited.

We must not therefore be alarmist when we look at the HSR and its curtailment of local powers. It is by no means perfect; the extent to which the sustainability and environmental standards of homes can be raised in the future is largely down to how the Building Regulations are going to be reformed and there are doubts that it will go far enough in this regard. Nevertheless, the evidence points towards local authorities favouring a national approach. We should listen to and respect this view, and try to understand why they think like this at all. Only then can we hope to do anything about it.



Max Lempriere is a third year PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.

Sustainable construction and local authorities: a failed experiment

Max Lempriere

Sustainable housing policy is a hot-topic at the minute. The autonomy that local authorities have had from central government since 2007 to require local energy efficiency and sustainable construction that supersede those in national building regulations is set to be revoked. The government has raised concerns that because so few local authorities are embracing this autonomy there is a hotchpotch of standards in different parts of the country, creating an un-even playing field and raising costs for developers. The decision to strip local authorities of this legislative independence represents a serious blow to the question of whether the sustainability of housing can be raised but, importantly, it also forces us to ask why the uneven playing field was created in the first place.

This experiment to involve the local level in the design and adoption of sustainable planning policy has failed not because of a lack of environmental concern amongst local authorities but because central policy makers and academics alike are unaware of the social, economic and political factors that affect the ability of local government to embrace any autonomy they are granted. They failed to see that conditions on the ground simply weren’t right for a significant number of local authorities to face up to developers and require more from them. Political, institutional, economic and sociotechnical barriers prevent a large number of local authorities from raising local standards, even when the will was there.

In my PhD research I attempt to increase our understanding in this regard by focusing on the barriers faced by local authorities. Up until now there hasn’t been much work that looks at what factors encourage or inhibit local government to legislate in pursuit of environmental goals, so my research doesn’t just help us understand this policy area but helps us refine our analytical models of the politics local government in processes of sustainable development.

It is becoming clear that for change to occur policy champions must push sustainable construction proposals through the local legislative process, there must be a culture of innovation and sustainability and a sense of ecological optimism in the council and proponents of change must be organised and resourced well enough to counter any challenges. It looks like these conditions simple weren’t there in the majority of local authorities to the extent required for reform of spatial planning policies.

Of course this provides only a snapshot of a bigger, far more complex picture. Spatial planning in particular and sustainable development in general cuts across many areas of policy, economics, society, technology, history and geography and the answer to why a local authority is more or less willing to legislate for either goal lies in a particular combination of factors drawn from all of these areas.

My work is therefore part of a bigger picture, one that policy makers and academics alike need to start painting. We need to recognize the important role that local government plays in the transition towards a more sustainable society and ask how we can understand the barriers they face in order to encourage more, and better, policy.

That brings me on to the main point I want to make here: If we are to prevent a repeat of this failed experiment then we need to increase our understanding of whether and why local authorities embrace the legislative autonomy granted to them in the context of environmental policy. Doing so will allow us to increase our certainty that future devolutions from the national to local level will be successfully endorsed. If, alternatively, we continue along our current trajectory of ignorance of the politics of local government’s role in legislating for sustainable development then we can expect any future experiments to fail.

Local authorities have an enormously important role to play in the provision of sustainable development and we cannot afford to ignore the mechanisms that permit or prevent them exercising that role.


Max Lempriere is a second year PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.