Douglas Godwin, QualitySolicitors Parkinson Wright
Sub-zero’ is a phrase Brits are all too familiar with when winter drops anchor, but ‘zero carbon’ has been gaining more popularity over the past decade explains Douglas Godwin, environmental, agricultural and planning specialist and partner of QualitySolicitors Parkinson Wright.
The government may have mandated this interest to some extent in 2006 with their plan to make all residential properties carbon neutral by 2020; given they scraped that energy efficient homes policy, it’s fair to say we’re running off our own steam. There have been other policies and help schemes put in place since, but none quite as bold as the original plan.
This interest in clean energy and having a home that takes care of itself is particularly high amongst the younger generation, but is something that all home owners can benefit from. For the green – and cost – conscious amongst us, the following guide can serve as a checklist for stepping lightly and making changes to reduce our carbon footprint, and perhaps save a few pennies along the way. Unsurprisingly, following some of these tips can help prevent neighbour warfare too.
If you’re considering making changes to a property, one of your first questions should be ‘do I have permission to do this?’ Any changes we wish to make to our homes need to comply with the law set out in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Generally speaking, if you’re not carrying out development work then you’ll be fine to get on with the job. If you are making any structural changes or doing groundworks, for example, you’ll need to obtain permission from your Local Planning Authority.
You may also need permission for certain permitted developments if you live in a listed building or conservation area, which falls under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. One example of this is with solar panels. The global solar market has surged nearly 30 per cent in the past year, showing a clear demand for renewable energy. Being in a conservation area will not automatically stop you from tapping into the sun’s power, but you will have to jump through formal hoops to get there by applying to the planning officers of the local council; you may also have to notify your local conservation group and Parish Council. Without a valid reason not to allow it, permission will generally be granted.
If you’re given the green light, you will also need to tell your insurance company to update your policy and, if you have a mortgage, your lender. Solar panels can either be bought outright or on a lease. If you are planning on selling your home further down the track, bear in mind that a mortgage may be refused if there is a standing lease arrangement. For the few lenders that will grant a mortgage, they will look for a ‘break clause’ and/or a ‘contracted out’ lease. Without these commercial protections in place, you could have a lot of trouble selling.
As we start to wave goodbye to summer, it’s natural to think about how we’re going to heat our homes. If your home is already built, you may consider lowering your footprint by switching to green energy, using your timers more effectively, and perhaps putting on an extra layer of clothing rather than switching on the heating. (The official heating switch-on date is a contested debate, so I’m not going to go there!) For those who think curling up by a fireplace sounds nice, it might not be as sustainable as you think. The government introduced Clear Air Actsin the 1950s and 60s to reduce the effects of smog and pollution, which are still in effect today. If you live in a Smoke Control Area, or Smokeless Zone, you may not be able to have a coal or log burner fireplace. A gas fireplace could provide an easy-to-maintain alternative.
If you haven’t built yet, you might consider a passive foundation system – though it is slightly more expensive in the short term, it will save on energy costs and the environment in the long term. Another option is underfloor heating, which would require ground source pumps. As a development work, installing this kind of heating would require planning permissions and a land survey for the pipework. Your property deeds would show if a survey has already been performed, which your solicitor could help decipher. It is often said that freeholders own the surface of their land, as well as the subsoil beneath it to the centre of the earth; installing ground pumps or a borehole system would be no problem for floor heating if you have the right permissions and own the land. Whether a leaseholder has that same right to the subsoil is a matter of contract and would be different for each case.
Not showering is frowned upon (sorry lads), so the next best thing is to be water conscious. Residential size water tanks are widely available and, so long as you have the space, they are a great idea. What home owners need to be aware of, though, is their ongoing upkeep. Any stored water has the potential to house bacteria, which is something to clearly be avoided. If you are going to use the tank water for things like gardening or flushing the toilet, then these are considered lower-risk activities. If you want to use the stored water for anything that comes into contact with people, such as for showering or washing up, then it is a legal requirement to have a Legionella Risk Assessment ‘regularly’. Guidelines used to stipulate every two years, but much more stringent checks are enforced now. What ‘regular’ means will depend on which risk category your hot or cold water system falls into and the vulnerability of the people using it (the elderly, children, or people with a low immune system, for example). When in doubt, it’s best to engage a professional.
If you want to live in the home you own, all of the above steps will be useful to you. If you bought your property to let out, you have the added legal requirement of making sure your Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is above ‘E’. Recent changes to the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015 mean you cannot lease your property with a substandard rating, or you’ll face heavy fines if you do. This is part of the government’s plan for the carbon dioxide emissions from all rented buildings to be ‘close to zero’ by 2050.
2050 eco target
Even if you choose not to rent your place out, you’ll still need to make provisions for energy efficiency. The Climate Change Act 2008 sets out a target for at least an 80 per cent reduction in the carbon emissions from our homes by 2050. For those planning their dream homes or investing in buy-to-lets, that planning needs to happen now.
Douglas Godwin, partner at QualitySolicitors Parkinson Wright, advises on planning, development and construction matters for residential and commercial clients.