Did you catch the headlines about the ‘Conservatory Tax’? They first appeared in the Daily Mail on Easter Monday and within a week had spread around the media. David Cameron then stepped in and said the whole idea was ‘bonkers’.
But what was the Conservatory Tax? And why did it hit the headlines? In fact, it wasn’t a tax at all and it didn’t apply to any but the very largest conservatories.
The heart of the matter was in reality a proposal to change the Building Regulations so that homeowners extending would have to upgrade the energy performance of the rest of the house. Extensions were included, as were loft and garage conversions, but conservatories were excluded unless they were larger than 30m2 or turned into extensions by removing external doors through to the existing house.
The proposal wasn’t new. It had been mooted twice before under Labour and each time the minister in question had spiked it, fearing it would prove unpopular. But this time Lib Dem MP Andrew Stunell had gone on record as saying that it would be coming into force, making the U-turn even more embarrassing.
Politicians are right to be wary, but many fear in this instance they’ve been unduly timid. It makes little sense to build an extension to modern insulation standards if the rest of the house leaks like an old sieve.
The Mail suggested you’d have to pay an extra ‘10%’, but the proposals were, in truth, far more measured. If there wasn’t anything simple and cost-effective that could be done – cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, draught-proofing and cylinder lagging were the only identified improvements – then the requirement wouldn’t be enforced. If you live in a house with solid walls, a converted loft and a combi boiler, then the only thing insisted on would be draught-proofing, costing £100 or so.
There was a further requirement which wasn’t so reasonable. It called for people replacing windows or boilers to also undertake the improvements. Boiler replacement in particular is often done as an emergency measure and can easily leave the householder strapped for cash.
But rather than amending the proposals, the Government has seen fit to throw them all out. And in doing so, has greatly damaged the launch of its flagship Green Deal scheme which would have been available to finance the work. Indeed, it was anticipated that much of the demand for Green Deal finance would have been driven by consequential improvements resulting from the 200,000 extensions built every year in England and Wales.
The proposals as they stood were going through the normal consultation process, just as every other amendment to the Building Regulations does. Sometimes the changes stand, sometimes they are watered down, but never before has a prime minister seen fit to intervene.
Just why the Mail chose to create mild panic about a non-existent tax remains unknown. The proposals were designed to dovetail with Green Deal finance so that people wouldn’t have to pay upfront and would, in theory, reduce the size of their energy bills. Consequential improvements may be seen as a hard political sell, but they’re not bonkers. Ditching them in this manner is.