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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 10, 2023


Proposed Domestic Building Environmental Standards (Scotland) Bill

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Patrick Harvie on the proposed domestic building environmental standards (Scotland) bill. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

In what was a lively debate this afternoon, there were a number of calls for more constructive politics in the Parliament. I am therefore delighted that this short statement will give members the chance to welcome yet another example of the Government putting constructive politics into practice.

One of the critical areas in which Scotland needs to make more progress to reduce carbon emissions and to cut the cost of living is in improving the energy performance of our homes and buildings, cutting their overall energy use and ending our reliance on fossil fuel, which exposes everyone to volatile prices. That is why the Bute house agreement and the shared policy programme agreed between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party in August 2021 include commitments to decarbonise the heat that we use in new buildings from 2024 through the new-build heat standard, which we consulted on in 2021 and 2022. In announcing the latest changes to energy standards within the building regulations last June, I said that we need to raise standards and deliver the action and innovation that are needed to meet our objectives for a net zero Scotland.

The Bute house agreement also promises explicit support for Passivhaus and similar standards. As many members will know, Passivhaus is an example of a published design and construction standard that is proven to deliver buildings with very good energy and environmental performance.

Scotland should have been building highly energy-efficient homes for decades and, if we had done what some other northern European nations have done, our retrofit challenges now would be far more manageable. We have made progress, and we have good energy standards for new homes, but there is more that can be done and, in particular, lessons that can be applied from established standards such as Passivhaus.

In May last year, Alex Rowley lodged a proposal for a bill to set new minimum environmental design standards for all new-build housing to meet a Scottish equivalent of the Passivhaus standard. That proposal was welcome and was well aligned with the ambition that was set out in the Bute house agreement.

I met Mr Rowley in May and in November last year to discuss his proposal. On both occasions, it was clear that there was a shared ambition and recognition of the benefits that can be delivered from further review of our new-build energy standards. That means better energy and environmental standards for new homes and increased assurance that the design and construction of new buildings will deliver in practice the intended performance. We also discussed the Government’s wider work on improving standards, including the most recent changes, which will apply from next month.

On 15 December last year, I wrote to Alex Rowley and to Parliament in response to his final bill proposal. I am pleased to confirm to Parliament that we will bring forward changes to building standards that will deliver a further step change in the energy performance of new buildings. As is required under rules 9.14.13 and 9.14.13A of standing orders, I confirm that the Scottish Government will make subordinate legislation within two years to introduce new minimum environmental design standards for all new-build housing to meet a Scottish equivalent of the Passivhaus standard, in order to improve energy efficiency and thermal performance. Our subordinate legislation will give effect to Mr Rowley’s final proposal for a domestic building environmental standards (Scotland) bill.

Committing to a timetable for a further review enables us to set out the ambition in more detail in the spring and to continue to engage with the construction sector, which will build on initial discussions that started last year. Our initial work will determine how such a standard should be defined and delivered through the building standards system. It will draw from the experience of the Scottish construction sector to set out a challenging standard that is deliverable in practice at a national level.

I welcome the initial positive response from house builders to my recent announcement and their willingness to work with us. Over the coming months, we will welcome input from all corners of industry to assist in shaping proposals that can be further developed and put out to consultation next year.

I offer again my thanks for the work that Mr Rowley and his team undertook over the past year, which resulted in his final proposal and a greater awareness of the opportunities that such standards can deliver. I am sure that that will be valuable work that helps with development of the review, and I welcome the continued involvement of Mr Rowley and his team in shaping the work.

As I noted in my letter, I look forward to continuing our programme of action to deliver improved energy and environmental standards across our new building stock and in particular to helping to deliver our vision to make all homes in Scotland warmer, greener and cheaper to run.

The Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow about 10 minutes for questions. Members who wish to ask a question should please press their request-to-speak button now.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond. I express my gratitude to the Scottish Government for its commitment to give effect to my proposed bill through Government legislation. I welcome the constructive dialogue that I have had with the minister. I thank the non-Government bills unit for the support that it has given my team and me in the past year of consultation; the Passivhaus Trust for providing invaluable guidance on the technicalities of the proposal; Unity Consulting for all its work in bringing the proposal together; and all the stakeholders who have kindly given us the benefit of their experience.

A lot of support came because of the importance that the proposed bill placed on the need for verification that a building meets the Passivhaus standards, which are to have no thermal bridging and to have superior windows, mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, high-quality insulation and airtight construction.

With that in mind, can the minister confirm that, in giving effect to my bill, the Scottish Government will not overlook the importance of a robust verification process for all new-build housing when implementing the Scottish equivalent to Passivhaus legislation, so as to ensure that the ambitious standards that are set are met, thereby giving confidence to new-build house owners across Scotland?

Patrick Harvie

I once again thank Alex Rowley. He talks about the constructive dialogue that there has been, and I once again put on record my thanks to him and his colleagues for taking that approach to this issue. I also thank the stakeholders who have contributed to his work and to the consultation that he has taken forward, the Passivhaus Trust and many others.

Alex Rowley is right to say that verification and ensuring compliance with new standards is an important aspect of improving energy performance through building standards. That has always been the case. As we have seen an incremental improvement in building standards over the years, we have needed to ensure that there is also an improvement in verification and in compliance. I think that we now have a strong approach to a compliance plan. As we continue to develop the work of defining the new standard, that will be accompanied by work to ensure that there is no gap between what we are setting out on paper and what we are able to deliver in practice. The issue of verification is hugely important.

Once again, I look forward to continuing to have good dialogue with Alex Rowley and other colleagues across the chamber to ensure that that happens.

Alex Rowley

Verification is the key issue that people continue to stress.

Support from the building industry for the bill was very much there. However, it talked about the issues that it faced, such as access to required materials, geographical imbalance in that access and the need to ensure that there is a trained and skilled workforce.

Does the minister agree that, as well as passing legislation, the Government must ensure a joined-up approach to introducing those ambitious targets by ensuring that we tackle the difficulties in the Scottish supply chain and engage with the building industry to increase the number of people who gain the skills in the sector? Does he agree that that joined-up approach needs to be overseen and driven by Government?

Patrick Harvie

That is a hugely important aspect, and it is relevant to the whole of my heat in buildings portfolio. The Passivhaus concept and improvements to building standards are one important aspect of delivering this in new builds. However, if we are going to achieve what we need to on the wider heat in buildings side, the supply chain and the skills are absolutely critical.

We need to see that as an opportunity and not just a challenge. I believe that there is not just work to be done, but long-term, high-quality careers to be had in delivering the transformation in our built environment that we require, whether in insulating zero-emission heating systems, retrofitting existing buildings for energy efficiency or improving the way in which we deliver new-build housing.

I absolutely agree that the Government’s work on the supply chain delivery plan for heat in buildings and other aspects of the work that we are doing to support skills in that area will be critical to the issue of Passivhaus-equivalent standards, but they will be equally critical to the rest of our heat in buildings agenda.

Alex Rowley

The response that we have had to this, as the minister has seen, has been absolutely overwhelming. It was certainly a greater response than I had expected. Interestingly, however, although there was real support for this, people continue to talk about and stress the need for retrofitting the current housing stock. Does the minister agree that we need to review the progress that has been made on retrofitting and look at how we can accelerate the efforts in that area to maximise household energy efficiency and tackle fuel poverty?

Patrick Harvie

We do need to continue what we are doing, which is carrying out our ambitious approach to accelerating the retrofit agenda as part of the wider heat in buildings programme.

I reinforce what I said in my opening remarks: the commitment to the Bute house agreement in August 2021, which included explicit support for Passivhaus, was part of a much wider set of policy priorities to accelerate Scotland’s move towards zero-emission heating, high levels of energy efficiency and the heat in buildings agenda.

It has never been clearer than it has been over the past year or two that this is not just about reducing carbon emissions, critical though addressing the climate emergency is; it is also essential if we are to meet the cost of living challenge and remove the vulnerability that people are exposed to through high and volatile fossil fuel prices. The Passivhaus standard and improving the way in which we deliver new builds can teach us valuable lessons about how we can systematise some retrofit approaches, too.

We continue to do a huge amount to accelerate work in this area. I am grateful that we have the political support of a good number of members across the chamber, and I look forward to that continuing.

Time is tight and interest is great. If we have short and succinct questions and responses, more members will be able to ask their questions.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I, too, pay tribute to Alex Rowley for his work on the bill and the important work that he has put in to get us to this point.

The Scottish Government’s latest housing statistics have revealed that the number of housing completions across all tenures in Scotland is still way below pre-Covid levels. Therefore, I have two questions for the minister. First, how will the Scottish Government ensure that it is able to meet its housing targets, given the additional costs that the proposals might present to private developers and, more important, the social rented sector, with the additional costs that it faces? Secondly, given the additional costs for the construction sector, what assessment have ministers made at this point of the higher cost per unit that the legislation is likely to lead to?

Patrick Harvie

The cost of living crisis is, of course, also a cost of doing business and cost of construction crisis. We know that, not just in Scotland but across Europe, the cost of delivering new buildings of any kind, including housing, has increased dramatically. The situation has been exacerbated in the UK as a result of some of the skills impacts of Brexit, and I know that we will continue to debate those issues long and hard.

I emphasise that the Scottish Government believes that the regulations that we will consult on later this year will set a long-term direction of travel and give the industry confidence that Scotland is serious about the heat in buildings transformation. We should see this as an opportunity for investment. Trying to muddle through, year to year, would be the wrong way to go. We need to give the construction sector the confidence that Scotland is serious about having a highly energy efficient, zero-carbon approach to our buildings. That will drive investment in skills and capacity. I hope that we will have the support of Conservative colleagues when we consult on the regulations.

Unlike the position 10 or 20 years ago, when the construction industry was telling us that we should not gold plate the building regulations, it is now saying that change is coming. The industry sees that a net zero future provides it and its members with an opportunity, so we need to work constructively with it.

Will the minister set out in more detail the ways in which giving effect to a Passivhaus-equivalent standard for new-build housing will help us with our fuel poverty targets and with the transition to net zero?

In brief detail, minister.

Patrick Harvie

Our approach will involve working in a consultative way to develop and define the Passivhaus standard. We will listen to the industry and to views from members across the chamber. That will ensure not only that we define the standard in the best way, but, as I said earlier, that we close any gaps relating to compliance and that the intention on paper is achieved in practice. Passivhaus standards, as well as other aspects of the heat in buildings agenda, provide huge potential to cut not only emissions but people’s cost of living. Frankly, there is no path to Scotland achieving our wider climate change targets without success on the heat in buildings agenda.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I, too, pay tribute to Alex Rowley for his work on the issue, and I hope that he will remain engaged on it.

The minister acknowledged that Passivhaus is an internationally recognised standard that is underpinned by 30 years of rigorous scientific development, with a robust system of independent certification and a track record of delivering ultra-low-energy houses across the world. I am therefore interested in the reason why the minister is not simply incorporating Passivhaus into building standards, which would at least have the benefit of helping with skills development and the professional support that will inevitably be needed.

Patrick Harvie

I take the point, but, as Liam McArthur mentioned, the Passivhaus standard is essentially owned and defined by an external body—it is not something that Government defines. As the Scottish Government is responsible for building standards, it is important for us to set our own definition.

Liam McArthur and other members who represent remote rural and island communities, which can face different climatic conditions or have housing stocks with different natures, will recognise that a new standard perhaps needs to be defined to take into account the particular circumstances in Scotland or in particular places within Scotland. Therefore, once again, I offer to Liam McArthur and other members the opportunity to engage with the Scottish Government as we take forward that work.

We must conclude that item of business at this point.