Why are over half the houses in Germany, Switzerland and Austria self-built, whereas less than 10 per cent are in Britain? Why are these countries far ahead of Britain in the race to produce energy efficient housing? BRIAN and SIBYLLE RUSHBRIDGE consider there is a connection. Meanwhile, in the UK, housebuilders plot to overturn policies promoting renewable energy.


The planning system in the German-speaking countries favours much higher environmental standards than in Britain. Greater local political autonomy and a more accessible local planning system on the mainland have helped the rapid increase of energy-efficient housing, and achieved successes we can only dream about in the UK.

The local government regions in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (the centre of activity for passivhaus low carbon buildings) are proactive, and have, like Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, a great deal of autonomy. As a result financial stimulation and implementation of energy improvements have come from both regional administrations and national governments.

On the continent, grants for the most energy-efficient buildings as well as renewable energy add-ons are available to anybody. In Germany, as in Britain, energy-efficient buildings have always found their greatest number of promoters among selfbuilders, who took them up most readily.

A transparent local planning system also encourages German selfbuilders Local councils decide on a regular basis which land should be developed next for houses or flats. They then establish which owners are willing to sell suitable land to the council. On this land, the council delineates individual plots if these are in demand, installs the utilities, and attaches outline planning permissions. It also keeps an open register of all plots with planning permission, regardless of ownership. Many local papers publish these lists quarterly.

Such single plots are an affordable proposition for self-builders (unlike the large sites used by volume builders here) and thus give a helping hand to the most forward-thinking group in the construction sector.

As a result energy-efficiency construction techniques have become established, and building standards have been raised swiftly and eventually become enshrined in the building regulations. Local area administrations additionally support whatever further energy measures they choose. This support is usually in the form of further grants, and of preferential allocation of building plots for the most energy-efficient buildings.

The councils' good example is not purely due to altruistic reasons, since it reduces their own fuel dependency on behalf of the social housing sector, as well as the broader security risks associated with some power stations and terrorist activity.

The above is mostly drawn from an article by Brian and Sibylle Rush-bridge entitled "Zero Carbon Is It Just a Big Red Herring" which appeared in Green Building, Vol 17, No 1, 2007.


When PPS7 on the Countryside was being formulated the "Gummer Clause" or "Country House Policy" (see Hill Holt Wood p. 56) was scrapped from the consultation draft, then reintroduced at the final minute in response to lobbying from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and allied bodies.

Much the same appears to be happening with the Merton rule, the planning policy that obliges new developments to derive a set percentage of energy from on site renewables. Its name derives from the fact that, instead of being a government initiative, this originated in Merton Borough Council's development plan and has been copied by numerous other councils.

Paragraph 23 of the consultation draft of the Climate Change Planning Policy Statement encourages local authorities to introduce Merton style policies. But in August 2007, well after the consultation period was closed, it emerged that The House-builders Federation and the British Property Federation had launched a major lobbying campaign and that the government was now minded to scrap any mention of the Merton rule, or even ban it. Ironically, this time the RIBA pitched in to defend the Merton rule.

Housebuilding companies object to the Merton rule because it can differ from district to district and they want a national standard. This is tantamount to admitting that they can't adjust to local circumstances, and are only capable of creating clone houses. Big companies don't like housing standards around the country to vary because this gives an advantage to flexible small-scale builders, who are setting the pace in terms of reducing carbon emissions in the built environment. The Merton rule fosters innovation precisely because it can vary from one district to another, and a district which sets an unusually high standard will attract the innovators.

from The Land 4, Winter 2007-8