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MEES: a missed opportunity?

Our Research Director, Kelly Greer, reflects on the publication of guidance on the minimum efficiency standards for homes in the Private Rented Sector.

BEIS has finally published the guidance for landlords and local authorities on the minimum level of energy efficiency required to let domestic property under the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015. We welcome the publication of the guidance and the clear message that it sends about the benefits to landlords and tenants of improved energy performance. But we worry that it contains loopholes that will mean that action to eradicate fuel poverty and improve the energy efficiency of properties may not be taken.

The legislation sought to improve the energy performance of the worst properties to an acceptable standard of energy efficiency (EPC band ‘E’ or above) and thus to improve living conditions for around 300,000 private sector rented households across England and Wales. However, the potential for landlords to claim an exemption and the reliance on local authority enforcement suggest that the regulations in their present form could potentially have little effect.

This is particularly worrying since the guidance’s introduction highlights that ‘Living in private rented accommodation significantly increases the likelihood of a household being fuel poor, so much so that around a third of all fuel-poor households in England live in the private rented sector, despite the sector accounting for only around a fifth of all households in England and a seventh of the households in Wales.
Amongst EPC F and G rated properties in the sector, recent data shows that 45% of households are classified as fuel poor. Put simply, the PRS has a disproportionate share of the UK’s least energy-efficient properties and fuel-poor households. Installation of energy efficiency measures can help address this’.

Inaction will therefore leave thousands of tenants paying higher energy bills for years to come. Climate Action charity 10:10 estimates that this could leave tenants paying an extra £1bn in energy bills every year.

ACE, with other key stakeholders in the sector, fought for the introduction of a cost cap within the regulations, below which landlords would be expected to fund improvements to bring their properties up to an EPC E standard, in place of the current ‘no cost’ provisions.

This principle of ‘no cost to the landlord’, within the current regulations, means that landlords of F or G rated homes will only be required to make improvements to these properties where they can do so entirely using third party finance from one or more sources.  Sources of funding landlords can access include the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), which has been significantly reduced in size and scope over the past few years; local authority grants, which are somewhat thin on the ground in these times of austerity; and the now privatised Green Deal Finance Company (yet the government’s own impact analysis of the regulations suggest that 30% of private rented sector homes wouldn’t be able to meet the Green Deal’s ‘golden rule’ and therefore wouldn’t be eligible to take up the finance).

The ‘no cost’ requirement also makes the regulations far more administratively complex, both for landlords and for local authorities as enforcement agents.  If a landlord chooses to register an exemption from the regulations on the basis that the changes would involve cost to them, they simply have to provide a self-certified narrative explanation for why no suitable funding could be obtained to fully cover the cost of installing improvements. How can local authorities check the validity of self-certified statements? ACE has recommended to BEIS that more detailed guidance on this area should be produced for both landlords and local authorities.

Local authorities can serve enforcement action on landlords who they believe are not meeting the regulations, and landlords can appeal the decision via the First Tier Tribunal process.  This will be an interesting area to monitor as the regulations come into force in April 2018, as with housing enforcement local authorities take a cautious approach. They will not risk using their resources to robustly defend cases that may be quashed on appeal by tribunal judges. It is therefore essential that any guidance produced is also disseminated to tribunal panels.

ACE also has particular concerns about the 5 year timeframe for exemptions, and how there is no mechanism to take account of changes in the funding landscape within this period. Those working in the energy efficiency sector know that the funding landscape can change dramatically on a frequent basis.  This long exemption timeframe means that chances to access funding are a missed opportunity to maximise the effectiveness of MEES. We must stress that it is important to strike a balance on this timescale – too short and it is too burdensome for landlords, but too long and the effectiveness of MEES is reduced.

We could take a positive view of the situation, and assume that landlords, understanding the benefits to themselves and their tenants of higher energy performance, will simply choose to pay for lower-cost measures themselves rather than seeking funding or an exemption.  For many, the cost could be as little as £600.

Any action by landlords, whether paying for improvements themselves or actively seeking funding sources, relies on landlords assuming that enforcement will be robust, however we believe that it will not.

A key point raised by ACE in the past is whether or not local authorities will enforce the standards. Both Environmental Health and Trading Standards departments, who are set to enforce these regulations, have seen significant cuts to their resources. The fallout from under resourcing local government can be seen in various ways. For example, the decline of living standards in private rented housing as well as the re-emergence of food safety scares. There are suggestions that Trading Standards are not actively enforcing the requirement for rental properties to have EPCs, and we are concerned that this will happen with the MEES regulations.

Another element missing from the guidance is how the government plan to strengthen the energy performance requirements over time. The message to landlords should be to take greater action now – beyond EPC band E – and that they will benefit in the long run by not having to undertake additional works in the future.

The introduction of these standards is a real step in the right direction, and could lead to significant improvement in some of our worst properties.  But unless government make it simpler for landlords to undertake works than to try and avoid the regulations, it risks failing to deliver.

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