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

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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.

Rented homes and energy efficiency: a sad tale of intention and action

Lost in the mists of time (or 2011, to be precise) yet another Energy Bill found its way onto the statute books.  Most of us have probably forgotten what was in that bill, since several, rather more meaty examples of the species have come along since.  I haven’t, since I had the pleasure of sitting through an interminable series of committee meetings debating the finer points of the Bill. One such example was legislation requiring landlords to uprate the energy efficiency of their properties to a specified level by 2018 or face being unable to let them out, providing that the cost of the improvements would not be disproportionately burdensome. Some of us at the time thought that the 2018 date was a bit far in the future, but generally, the proposal had strong all party support and passed into law.

But, and there always are buts, the proposals required some secondary legislation to come to pass. Not least a specification of what energy band those landlords would need to attain, and what limitations on landlords’ expenditure would be regarded as ‘reasonable’. Furthermore, there was a question, which the committee at the time seemed to think would not be a problem, but the wording of the legislation later demonstrated otherwise, of what properties exactly would be covered by the new requirement? Would it just be where landlords were renting out an entire property to a tenant and would therefore obtain one energy performance certificate for the whole property? Or would it include the probably more numerous instances where properties were being let to more than one tenant – divided properties or multiply occupied homes?

Well, here we are three years later, and wooo, the first of the ‘buts’ has eventually been made into an ‘and’. At the end of July, the Department has finally got round to producing a consultation paper on how the proposals in the Bill will actually be implemented. You might have missed it by going on holiday, but it does mean that secondary legislation will now be prepared before 2018 is actually upon, us, but only just. And the good news is that the Department has set out the level of attainment that will be expected.  Landlords will have to improve their properties up to band E – not great, but since private rented properties are disproportionately to be found at the very lowest of the energy efficiency bands, in itself a real advance.

The second of the ‘buts’, however, remains firmly in that box. The Department has essentially bottled it as far as making the proposal into anything like a comprehensive measure covering all rented properties, and is proposing that the legislation only covers whole house lets. This means, not to put too fine a point on it, that the majority of properties will probably now entirely escape the requirements of the legislation. And if you are a prospective tenant looking to rent just part of house, you can be assured that your dwelling will remain just as draughty and fuel inefficient as, statistically at least, it will always have been. This wasn’t the intention of the legislation and I can only think that someone, somewhere has succumbed to a lot of pressure from some significant interests to drop the idea that the new laws might actually work properly.

I’ve been trying to get this omission plugged for some time now and I recently put a mini bill into the system with the specific aim of placing words onto primary legislation that ensures that all lets have to be included in any minimum standards programme. Unfortunately it is very unlikely to make any progress, so it is really down to the Secretary of State to change his mind about the omissions in the proposals for implementation. If you see him over the next couple of weeks, perhaps you can mention it to him…

This article first appeared in Business Green