Green houses

The South West leads the way in reducing the UK’s impact on climate change. For lawyers advising their clients in this new carbon-constrained era, there are important and rapid moves being made in the region that will affect future development decisions in the region.

Even before the Government committed itself to zero-carbon development for new houses by 2016, the South West Regional Assembly had already developed policies in its draft regional spatial strategy (RSS).

The RSS will encourage sustainable construction and measures such as better insulation and the use of energy from renewable sources. The aim is to reduce the region’s carbon footprint through the sustainability of new development.

The draft policies, which are subject to the RSS examination this month, will require large housing developments to be carbon-neutral by 2011 – five years before the Government’s targets. Also, unlike the Government’s proposals, there are targets to reduce carbon emissions in new commercial properties by 44 per cent by 2016.

The delivery of successful zero-carbon or reduced carbon development and the reduction of the South West’s carbon footprint will depend on:
•effective leadership of local authorities;
•the availability of renewable energy;
•the viability of renewable energy technologies; and
•the translation of policy objectives and principles into action both through the planning system and individual action.

Example by leadership

Bristol City Council has set an ambitious agenda for addressing climate change. The council has committed to a 3 per cent annual cut in carbon emissions as part of its aim of establishing the city as a green capital in Europe.

Since 1991 the council has saved an estimated £4.5m by tendering its energy supplies and reinvesting this money into improving the energy efficiency of its buildings. It is now in the process of preparing a scheme to construct two wind turbines in nearby Avonmouth. These would provide up to 25 per cent of all the council’s electricity needs. The council is aiming to purchase 15 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

Renewable energy supply

The South West has a track record of developing firsts in renewable energy, including the UK’s first commercial wind farm, the first UK scheme to harness electricity from fermented farm and food waste and the world’s first underwater tidal stream turbine. Another scheme is the South West of England Regional Development Agency’s Wave Hub, located on the seabed off the Cornwall coast near Hayle. Essentially, it will function as a ‘plug’ to connect experimental schemes for harnessing wave energy to the National Grid.

There are almost 100 renewable energy schemes connected to the National Grid, but these schemes provide only 3 per cent of the region’s 2010 target of 15 per cent power supply from renewable sources. Planning committees continue to be a barrier to the development of renewable energy schemes in the region and this must be surmounted if the region’s targets are to be met. For law firms with the capabilities and experience of advising on renewable energy projects, the policy drive on renewables should be a catalyst for further expansion.

Renewable energy technologies

The South West has a considerable – and growing – reputation for developing low-carbon technologies and products. The level of renewable energy development has grown considerably, with more than 160 companies (1,100 employees) involved directly with renewable energy developments such as wind power, wave power and thermal power.

The region hosts businesses that have developed commercially viable low-carbon technologies, ranging from thermal solar tiles for the domestic housing market to so-called nanotechnology applications for low-energy commercial water purification and desalination systems.

The planning system and individual action

Real estate lawyers with clients based in, or looking to move to, the region will need to be aware of the increasing dominance of environmental protection in the planning system over the other traditionally equal influences of employment and economic expansion.

With the new powers available under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, we may soon see local councils making local development orders allowing household microgeneration technologies, such as wind turbines, to be installed without the requirement for planning permission.

On a larger scale, some councils may follow the example of Milton Keynes to secure financial contributions from new developments that do not achieve carbon neutrality on site. Such ‘carbon offset’ funds could be used to help existing housing stock meet its carbon emission reduction targets.

Planning agreements may also require developers to connect to a district heat and power system and to participate with a local energy services company to ensure the viability of the scheme. Lawyers will therefore require skilful, imaginative and informed solutions to help deliver client objectives.

As many businesses are increasingly trying to address their social and environmental responsibilities, those looking to relocate within, or to, the region will look to the commercial property sector for ‘greener’ buildings. In effect this could lead to the emergence of a two-tier commercial property industry in the South West: the choice between standard and ‘greenplated’ property, where occupiers become more willing to pay a premium for space in more environmentally friendly buildings.

This may be precipitated both by corporate social responsibility and also with one eye to the future – buildings that are poor performers in environmental terms may within a few years have significant costs and fiscal liabilities attached to them.

Housing developments have a significant role to play in reducing the carbon footprint of those that will live in them. Initiatives being taken by national agencies, such as English Partnerships’ proposals for a zero-carbon footprint development at Hanham Hall on the outskirts of Bristol, have the potential to provide a benchmark for sustainable housing development for the future and the scheme will be watched with interest by the housing development world.

The South West is pulling together the components for a more sustainable future. The Regional Development Agency and most local planning authorities are providing planning policies to encourage sustainable solutions to new development. It is now down to the authorities to lead by example and to provide the political impetus to ensure that the region delivers.

Richard Guyatt is a partner and Paul Collins is an associate at Bond Pearce