On warm homes and warm words

(First published in Business Green 16th June 2015)

There is a ballot for Prime ministers questions among backbenchers, and if you are lucky, you will be allocated a slot for one the first ten or so questions that will be called after the opposition leader has had his or her turn. I came up with a slot this week, and decided to raise the issue of support for home energy efficiency programmes. There have been some press reports recently suggesting that these programmes could be chopped as part of the next phase of Government spending retrenchment: so I asked the PM if he could assure me that the reports were not true, and that he would be continuing instead to support energy efficiency underwriting. Present programmes such as Green Deal, ECO and Warm Homes discount are , in truth, not very well funded, but are in my view essential to continue over the next period for what one might call immediate and long-term reasons.

The immediate reason is, of course that right now insulating homes and making them more energy efficient represents the best path in combatting fuel poverty, and ensuring that older and more vulnerable householders have warm homes to live in: cost effective for the future both in terms of fuel bills paid out by residents, and costs of support or intervention where a cold home for an elderly person might be the end of living in it independently.

The longer term reason was waiting to be discussed later on the same day in a debate on Climate change, and followed what the Prime minister himself had said immediately after Prime minister’s questions about the G7 summit. The summit had come out with a strong statement about the need to produce an ambitious and binding agreement on Climate change at the Paris Climate change meeting in December: quite right, and the UK along with its EU partners has committed to place an offer on the table for the talks of a 2030 target of at least a of 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. We can do that (we think ) in the UK because our Carbon Budgets, the fourth one of which covering the period bang in the middle of achieving those commitments, has recently been accepted by the government, projects something like a 50% saving in emissions over the same period. Achieve the budget, in short and you have easily discharged the UK’s commitment to the Paris talks.

Well, yes, but as I always tell myself to do, look at the small print. And in the case of the fourth carbon budget, a starting assumption by the Committee on Climate Change in drawing the budget up is that, by the early 2020s we will have made the substantial commitment to reducing emissions that will come from far greater energy efficiency in homes, and in fact they project some 2 million solid wall homes treated, together with 80-90% of possible loft and cavity wall treatments. So if we are nowhere near those levels by that date, something else big will have to go into the carbon budget to save it. I would like to see a substantial increase in retrofitting homes so that we can come close to that ambition as a contribution to carbon budgets, but even a partial achievement will make a big difference on whether we can meet budget requirements or not. So a strong commitment to the Paris talks, (which the Prime minister endorsed) has consequences for what we do about it over the next few years if we really mean what we say.

I wasn’t sure that I would get all this in the answer that the Prime minister would give me to my question: but a general acknowledgement of the importance of energy efficiency in homes, and a generalised commitment to keep funding on track would have been good enough.

What I actually got was a smirking riposte congratulating me on being returned to Parliament because there weren’t many Labour MPs on the South Coast….which I sort of knew already. My fault, I guess for thinking that a pertinent question to the Prime minister in the bear pit of PMQs might get anything other than a joke response

When is March 2016 not March 2016?

Well, look, what can I say other than sorry? You might have noticed (if noticing things not happening can be bracketed in the same way as things happening) that nothing has emanated from Alan’s Energy Blog since…er…the beginning of February. A small interruption in the shape of a particularly enervating General election campaign did occur it is true, but that is really no substantive excuse for not putting stuff out.

So for all my several avid readers, here’s something new at last, and to achieve this, I thought I would proceed with an obscurity. Well more a starry eyed question, really, and that is this: Has the Secretary of State actually stopped the giving out of Renewable Obligation certificates after March 2016 by saying in a written statement that there will be no RO certificates after that date? There has, of course been a justifiable storm, on the day of the statement, about its effect: a good piece by Julie Elliot MP in Business Green  sets out just what damage such a knee jerk, ill thought out piece of reverse engineering will do to the wind industry and to the cost of renewables. I concur with all that, but my question is, in the rush to produce this handbrake turn has the Sec of State actually done what she thinks she has?
I ask this because there is, in the nether regions of her statement, this curious phrase:

‘I am therefore announcing today that we will be introducing primary legislation to
close the RO to new onshore wind from 1st April 2016 – a year earlier than planned.’

So the Minister is going to legislate to close entry: which I guess she will have to do because there exists already a piece of secondary legislation which states that no new RO certificates are to be issued for electricity generation after 31st March 2017. Or to put it another way; ROs WILL be issued up until that date. The secondary legislation in question is the Renewables Obligation closure Order 2014 (no. 2388) which seems to have been passed in a bit of a panic by then DECC minister Matthew Hancock to ensure that the RO really did close in 2017: and to make sure it did he (unusually) put the date on the face of the legislation. And there it is; no ifs, no buts, no ministerial discretion, the RO closes on 31st March 2017.

So let’s then think for a moment about the passage of the legislation – Primary legislation, that is, – that the minister has in mind. That will be the forthcoming Energy Bill rostered to appear in this session. Let us say it starts its passage through Parliament in late autumn: after all its stages it will probably get royal assent ..ooh around next summer, after the magic date of April 2016 has passed, but obviously, before the former magic date of March 2017 has appeared. And meanwhile, as far as I can see the RO closure Order of 2014 chugs on until such time as it doesn’t. So maybe we’ll find ourselves in the difficult situation of having to give out ROs in the spring or summer of 2016 because the law says we have to, even if the Minister says we don’t. I wonder if that has been budgeted for? Just asking.

Finally – energy efficiency regulations emerge un-pickled

Finally, stumbling over the line six weeks or so before pre-election purdah puts everything into mothballs, the regulations requiring landlords, by 2018,  to ensure their rented properties exceed a very basic test of energy-worthiness before they can be rented out have been laid before Parliament. Now lest that first sentence sound a bit churlish, let’s be clear: hooray. The regulations themselves are sound. OK it’s only energy efficiency band ‘E’  (the bands go from G – meaning your house, energy efficiency-wise, is more like a gazebo than a property, to A – which envisages homes that are so efficient they don’t use much energy at all to heat and power, and may anyway create their own energy to do so) so it’s not that far up the scale. But since private rented homes are among the least energy efficient properties as a group it represents a real step forward for tenants warmth and property efficiency across the country. And the penalties for non-compliance are proportionate to the cost of actually doing something – i.e. more than it is likely to cost landlords to do up their homes to conform (which as the Association for the Conservation of Energy and others have shown is, in most cases, a pretty modest sum – perhaps £1500 or so).

The regulations don’t of course cover a large part of the private rented scene, which is where parts of properties in which people are living jointly are let out on individual tenancies: Houses in Multiple Occupation or HMOs. This remains a real gap in provision, since it means that thousands of properties in most large towns and cities will simply be exempt. This raises the not entirely fanciful prospect of some landlords straying into letting properties out as HMOs and not single tenancies over the next few years so that they do not have to improve their properties to let them.  I shall certainly continue to pursue this gap in the regulations, which surely, a future government more interested in energy efficiency across the piece will have to fill…which brings me to the slightly more churlish bit of the piece.

The Energy Act 2011, from which these regulations derive, received its Royal Assent on 10th November 2011. That’s a piece of legislation passed by Parliament, supported generally all-round, although there were moves during its passage to move the qualifying date for landlords to comply forward to 2016. No, we were told, 2018 is a better forward date, because after the regulations are in, that gives five to six years to move towards compliance, instead of about three if the date is met at 2016.

So, a mere three years and three months later, regulations (which were probably written and ready to go by early 2012) finally emerge, giving landlords, yes, about three years to move to compliance.  So why the inordinate and otherwise inexplicable delay?

Introducing the measure yesterday, Ed Davey gave it away, although when he was in undifferentiated mode as Secretary of State, he played a straight bat when I enquired, repeatedly about the non-appearance of the regulations. ‘Well’ he said, ‘’I wish the regulations had been brought in earlier.’  Battles within the coalition had apparently delayed them. ‘Not everyone in this government wants more regulation. But in energy efficiency regulation plays a crucial role’. Quite so Ed.

So who might it be that the battles were with? Not the Ministry of Defence obviously – the finger very rapidly and accurately points at our not very green at all friend in DCLG, Mr Pickles. Quite scandalously, in fact, that a modest follow on measure from an Act agreed by Parliament which would make a big difference on housing fitness and tenant welfare at small cost, and even endorsed by the National Landlords Association, has been blocked. Blocked by the head of the department that is supposed to be all about housing and standards therein, and only eventually unstitched because, I understand No. 10 very belatedly told them to stop messing around.  In another system someone ought to be accountable for that kind of attempted extended sabotage on a measure agreed by Parliament. Not in this one though.