Dear Boris and Nicola: This really is the best way to ‘Build Back Better’

Alex Rowley shows how the Scottish Parliament can together tackle climate change and fuel poverty.

I have introduced a consultation for a Private Member’s Bill that would change building standards and require all new build housing in Scotland to be built to Passivhaus standard or a Scottish equivalent. The aim being to significantly reduce the need to consume energy and, therefore, the cost of keeping your home warm.

The main features of Passivhaus are high-quality insulation, heat control, and robust windows, creating an airtight building, heat recovery and ventilation and thermal bridge free design. Whilst there is a need to retrofit the worst of Scotland’s poor housing, it makes no sense that we would build new housing to anything less than the gold standard to reduce costs and the need to consume energy.

The recent increase in global energy prices has put the issue of fuel and energy insecurity at the top of the political agenda. Inflation-busting increases in wholesale gas prices and the collapse of a number of energy companies supplying the domestic market combined with years of austerity, pay cuts and restraint along with the removal of the 20% uplift in Universal Credit has created a ‘perfect storm’, driving more and more people into fuel poverty.

The main causes of fuel poverty are listed as poor energy efficiency of the dwelling, low disposable household income, and the high price of domestic fuel. Fuel poverty is a blight that has long plagued Scotland and will only get worse during the current cost-of-living crisis. In December 2021, fuel poverty campaigners Energy Action Scotland released startling figures showing the Scottish average for people living in fuel poverty was 24%. In the remote rural areas of Scotland, this figure could be as high as 43% of people living in fuel poverty. On average, almost 1 in 4 people in Scotland were living in fuel poverty, defined by the Scottish Government as any household spending more than 10% of their income on energy after housing costs have been deducted. This was before the price cap rise in April which added an average £700 per year to a household’s energy bills. And this is before an estimated further rise of £800 in October.

So, I would contend that reducing the need to consume energy is a key tool for the eradication of fuel poverty for the decades to come and indeed it is also a key tool if we are to meet the climate targets and achieve the goals of the Glasgow COP26.

Which leads to the second benefit of building energy efficient homes – addressing the climate crisis. Scotland is rightly setting ambitious targets to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2045, and the only way we can achieve these targets is by matching ambition with action. With household emissions contributing an estimated 20% of all emissions in Scotland, tackling inefficient housing is absolutely crucial to the fight against climate catastrophe. If housing remains in its current state, households across the country will simply continue to pay ever-increasing rates to contribute to emissions with little in the way of benefit from themselves.

The impact of inefficient housing is already here, and I absolutely recognise the immediate need to retrofit properties to ensure existing housing stock is providing as close to a comfortable and affordable living experience as possible. But for every day we continue building to inefficient standards when better is available, we condemn future generations to the same old retrofitting debate, the same search for funding, the same misery of fuel poverty impacting more households year-on-year.

So, there is only one way forward – we must break the retrofit cycle. We have the tools, the skills, the experience, the materials, and the method to create homes adhering to the gold standard of energy efficiency, reducing household emissions by 65%. Passivhaus is a tried and tested building method that provides solutions to deliver net zero housing. The construction method creates air-tight, non-draughty properties with increased amounts of insulation combined with triple glazed doors and windows and eradicates cold bridging and heat loss. Homes built in this way provide a high level of occupant comfort and use very low amounts of energy for heating. They have a mechanical ventilation system designed into them to allow for cooling and the removal of stale air to be replaced by fresh air.

Passivhaus building is an accredited and certified process that goes through a stringent quality assurance process before being passed. It is carried out and signed off by trained assessors.

With these standards available to us, it makes little sense to continue building to a lower standard. Long gone are the days where a well-insulated home was a luxury many could not afford – now it is an absolute essential and we must remove the option to build and offer low quality housing in the name of cost saving and profit.

This is why I have introduced a consultation for a Private Member’s Bill to change building standards that require all new build housing to be built to Passivhaus standard or a Scottish equivalent. This bill will not solve today’s retrofit problem, but it will solve tomorrow’s, and the next day’s, for generations to come.

Scotland has the potential to be a trailblazer in clean, green, comfortable, and affordable housing. I appreciate the Scottish Government’s recognition of the problem posed by inefficient housing. Unfortunately, their proposed solutions do not go far enough. If we are to tackle the twin problems of fuel poverty and climate crisis, radical action is required. I believe my Private Member’s Bill is a radical approach to the housing issue, but with tried and tested methodology that means this is entirely achievable if we are willing. I hope I can count on your support.

Alex Rowley is a Labour list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife. His Bill is called the ‘Domestic Building Environmental Standards (Scotland) Bill’ and can be accessed here