Going for a Merton? The increased importance of the Merton Rule in a changed planning system

January 20th, 2015 by

The Government’s policy of cutting regulation has left the Merton Rule as one of the few remaining tools for LPA’s wanting developers to build lower impact, lower running cost new homes that exceed Building Regulations.

The last two years have seen root and branch changes to the planning system in England and planning policy on new homes in particular.

In March 2012 the Government brought forward the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which aimed to streamline planning policy and put much greater emphasis on the planning system as a tool to stimulate economic growth. Then in April 2014 it published the Housing Standards Review which heralded a ‘Buildings Regulations only’ approach to energy performance in new buildings, the death nell of the Code for Sustainable Homes, and the end to optional higher energy efficiency standards set by Local Authorities.Going for a Merton?

For Councils which had, in line with previous Government policy, developed evidence based Core Strategies designed to push energy performance in new buildings ahead of Building Regulations, this came as a blow. The change in direction was reinforced by the watering down of the definition of a zero carbon home (early in the Coalition’s tenure), greater emphasis on  ‘Allowable Solutions’ and an improvement in the energy performance standard for new buildings in the 2013 Building Regulations which, at 6%, fell far below the lowest increment proposed in the Government’s consultation.

Despite being less than four months from a general election much of the detail of the transitional arrangements has still to be published. There is confusion about whether the Code for Sustainable Homes will have any role in defining standards. And what happens where Local Authorities are in the process of implementing Core Strategy based the previous policy? So far planning inspectors appear to be reaching different decisions on this.

One part of the previous policy which has so far, escaped the regulation cull is the ‘Merton Rule’. It was due for the chop but following intense lobbying from the UK renewables sector Councils have retained the right to set reductions in residual emissions (in new buildings) through the use of on-site renewables. This could be the only option for Local Planning Authorities that want to exceed Building Regulations in new homes.

There has been speculation that the Climate Change Act (2008) could be used to argue the case for faster implementation of the nationally prescribed targets, set locally.

Both the NPPF and zero carbon buildings policy exist within the context of this legislation which commits the UK to a legally binding 80% carbon emission reductions by 2050 and 34% by 2020. Given that this applies to the whole of the UK, it applies locally as much as it applies nationally. So new development within an LPA that leads to a net increase in emissions would go against the grain of the CCA.

Going for a Merton?

Higher energy efficiency standards = more insulation = lower emissions & running costs

When Warwick District Council looked at their planned level of development they found that it would lead to a net increase in emissions of 3% by 2027. It was suggested that they could use this to demonstrate the need for an accelerated local implementation of national standards in order to comply with national targets, by for example requiring all developments over 1000 sqm or 10 houses to construct at least 10% of the development is built to Passivhaus standards. An interesting approach in line with the Government’s own policy, but as far as we are aware, one which has yet been tested in anger.

So after two years of upheaval in which LPA’s lost the ability to set locally based energy efficiency standards the Merton Rule appears to be the last man standing.

Further information

National Planning Policy Framework. Click here.

Housing Standards Review. Click here.


Written by

Environmental consultant, facilitator, founder & Director of Climate Works Ltd.