Speeding up heat pumps through planning 

Codrina Cretu

Nesta’s Codrina Cretu looks at the impact of planning rules on heat pump installations.

At Nesta, we recognise that heat pumps are the best current low-carbon technology for heating homes. So, to support the UK on its home heating decarbonisation journey, we’re exploring how to speed up heat pump adoption whether it’s increasing the appeal, affordability, workforce or other obstacles to take up of the tech.

The planning issue

We’re currently running a project looking into the planning issues around heat pump installations. 

As it stands, the current planning system deters many homeowners from proceeding with a heat pump installation and creates additional work for heat pump installers. 

While many homeowners can install heat pumps on their properties without planning permission – under ‘permitted development’ – should they meet certain criteria, a significant proportion do require planning permission. This could include larger homes needing multiple or bigger heat pumps for sufficient heating, issues with smaller gardens not meeting the distance requirements and the limitations of listed or conservation area homes.

The impact of planning rules has a huge effect some installers already screen out homes that do not easily qualify for permitted development. Homeowners, discouraged by the expense, delay and uncertainty associated with obtaining planning permission, may then be dissuaded from pursuing heat pump installations.

We want to learn more about the barriers so we can design innovations to address them and reduce the time and effort required to install a heat pump with planning. 

Our research so far has included interviews with installers, homeowners and local authorities to understand the processes and barriers.

Five things we’ve learnt so far

  1. Time for change
    We’ve interviewed more than 20 industry insiders so far and everyone agrees it’s time to improve matters. The good news is that the English, Scottish and Welsh governments are all investigating how to do this. 
  2. Simplify the rules
    Today’s rules constrain how big heat pumps can be and where they can go. There’s a huge opportunity for simplification to benefit everyone – homeowners, installers and local authorities – increasing uptake of carbon-cutting heating without storing up problems for the future. 
  3. Drive up standards
    One way to rapidly and continuously drive up quality would be for the regulations to permit any instal that complied with MCS’s standard. That’s because it would be much simpler and quicker to update this industry standard than government planning regulations. 
  4. Improve consistency
    At the moment each nation has different rules, and each council implements them differently. This leaves businesses spending time learning how to comply with each individual interpretation of the rules. Applying the same rules consistently from place to place could cut costs and accelerate progress. 
  5. Keep it quiet
    If the main concern is the noise heat pumps make, then it makes much more sense to focus on that than limit their size or location. After all, larger heat pumps can be quieter as they have more room for soundproofing and bigger fans can move more slowly. Also, people without much room might find new places to put heat pumps, like in the roof as they are in the Netherlands. 

Government consultations

As we write this, the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments are consulting (or planning to consult) on how to improve matters. So too are MCS. We’re still developing our thinking, but if we had to say now, our recommendations will probably be to: 

  • focus on noise, if that’s the main concern
  • set a simple sound target to drive investment in innovation
  • simplify the regulations to accelerate uptake and cut costs
  • shift complexity to the MCS as it’s easier to update the standard than the regulations
  • enable consistency by aligning the rules across different nations
  • take a different approach in high density areas, like purpose-built flats.

Next steps

We’ll share our findings on this work later this autumn on our project page but if you’d like to share your thoughts or suggestions on planning for heat pumps please do get in touch with codrina.cretu@nesta.org.uk