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Only reform of the EPC will bring about improvements

ImageAs a key driver in reducing energy use in the home the EPCs must be reformed to be more visible and provide real motivation for us to make changes in our attitude to energy consumption

A property is the single most valuable purchase most of us will ever make. For years, it was argued that is a compelling reason why each building should be given an energy rating. Prospective purchasers can get an idea of its relative efficiency. And advice on what improvements can be done.

Since 2007 by law you can’t move into a new building – even a rented one- without being told what its rating is. Increasingly there is talk about using the Energy Performance Certificate (or EPC for short) as the lynchpin of a variety of “sticks and carrots” intended to drive forward improvements. To do this, requires a step change in our approach to EPCs.

There is no question of the size of the task before us. Professor Michael Kelly is just stepping down as the chief scientist at the Communities and Local Government department. He estimates that, to comply with the reduction levels set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, we need a six-fold increase in the rate of energy improvements in our homes.

His message is simple. Between 1990 and 2005 we lowered carbon emissions from homes by an overall 4%. On the 2050 trajectory, we  require a 24% reduction over 15 years – six times more than we managed during that earlier period. Throughout which time, you may recall, the UK congratulated itself endlessly on being the world leaders in carbon abatement.

One of the phrases beloved of all energy saving gurus is the phrase: “If you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it properly”. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, unlike in 1990, we now have an unequivocal means of measuring the energy condition of our buildings. The EPC.

Upgrading the certificates

The argument is that there can now be policy incentives or disincentives used to encourage upgrading the certificates. The certificates work on the A to G rating scale, familiar to all from white goods like refrigerators or washing machines. For instance, the Energy Saving Trust argues that those with F and G ratings should be forced to upgrade such homes, before they are sold or rented out. The Scottish government has just taken the legal powers to enable it to enforce such improvements.

To intervene like this, we need to have absolute confidence in these EPCs. The certificates need to have three absolute criteria attached to them.

First of all, they need to be completely familiar to everybody. Rather than tucked away in the small print of a property transaction, the rating should be boldly displayed in every piece of promotional literature concerning the building in question. The details in the estate agents’ windows or advertisements need to have the rating as clearly visible as the number of rooms.

I am not naïve enough to think that a lowly rating will deter somebody from purchasing their dream cottage. But what total familiarity with the rating scheme would do is to ensure that a low rating at minimum would become a bargaining tool regarding the eventual price.

Second, we need to have confidence that the rating given will be approximately the same whoever provides it. Effectively, a quality control. European law requires that training and qualifications to undertake assessments must be acquired from an officially recognised body. In many countries, that is provided by an official state-appointed body. But not in the UK.

Nine firms given accreditation

Two years ago DCLG asked for those who wished to provide such qualifications to apply to do so. Subsequently there were nine companies given accreditation status to undertake the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) and its cutdown version (RdSAP) which forms the core of the assessment for the certificates.

Some were very familiar names, like National Energy Services or Elmhurst; others didn’t even have a website and still appear to be little more than software merchants. Empirical evidence has shown clearly that those receiving training from the reputable, established organisations tend to produce consistent measurements for certification. Others, less so.

Consequently there are experienced assessors, trained by these established companies, who are being frozen out of undertaking certification. Assessors can feel under pressure to balance professional integrity against losing business to less responsible assessors. I learnt about an assessor who gave a building a very low rating. The solicitor contacted the assessor on behalf of his client, stating that another assessor had given the building flying colours. Not only would the initial assessor not be paid, he wouldn’t be recommended again for such work. Such gaming must stop.

Finally, the EPC must provide genuine motivation to want to upgrade. Granted there are always recommendations included regarding what are the most-effective improvements can be. But seldom will these move even the most willing householder up the alphabetical scale more than one letter. Tucked away in the detailed report – seldom currently shown to purchasers – are the “full technical potential” energy saving measures. These need to be right up front.

Without getting these three criteria right, the net effect is a mass communications tool which is communicating an unacceptable message: that UK buildings cannot be sensibly refurbished to a standard consistent with the legal requirements of climate change policy. This must change.

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