Sunday, 01 March 2015

Top of the hill

From: Inside edge

Twice before governments have attempted to force through improvements to the energy efficiency of existing homes and then backed down. Now the backlash is building again.

In both 2002 and 2006 the plan was to amend Part L of the Building Regulations so that home owners building an extension or replacing the windows or the boiler would also have to address the efficiency of the rest of the house. Both times vested interests and political cowardice killed the idea off.

Six years on and a consultation has just finished on a similar idea – but with three crucial differences. First, it’s being proposed by the coalition, not Labour. Second, the backlash is exposing Conservative and Lib Dem divisions. Third, and perhaps most importantly, a link to the Green Deal provides a way to spread the cost of the work for owners who cannot afford to pay for it up-front.

The relevant part of the consultation launched by the Lib Dem communities minister Andrew Stunell at the end of January (regulations on consequential improvements for domestic extensions) finished on March 27. The government’s preferred timetable is for the change on ‘consequential improvements’ to come into force in October so that it can be linked to the introduction of the Green Deal and give householders a way to invest in energy efficiency and pay for it from the resulting savings as a charge on their energy bill.

The case in favour of the policy is clear. A quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions coming from existing homes, so action is essential if we are to stand any chance of meeting our international obligations to cut them. If the government is correct that ‘the measures will pay for themselves in fuel savings’ through the Green Deal then who has a problem with that?

Well, for starters, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the chair of the energy and climate change committee Tim Yeo and assorted Conservative backbenchers.

The papers are against it on a ‘home is your castle’ platform. For Christopher Booker, the EU-hating Mail columnist, the idea amounts to a ‘green tax’ that will mean a ‘red tape nightmare for home owners’. However, he also broadens the attack to include the Green Deal in general and plans to require landlords to improve the energy efficiency of any home they want to rent in particular.

On the Today programme Tim Yeo said he sympathised with the aim but that the way forward was to make people enthusiastic about energy saving. Compulsion might not be the best way to do this.

But other Conservative backbenchers seem to have made a more nakedly political calculation. The Green Deal was all the idea of Lib Dem Chris Huhne, the Part L consultation is piloted by Lib Dem Andrew Stunell. Tory MPs like the one quoted by Sky News think this is not just a ‘daft idea’ but a Lib Dem one to boot. 

Even more worrying for defenders of the idea is the criticism of compulsion coming from organisations such as Consumer Focus and Which quoted in the Mail story and signs that the government is struggling to convince people that energy efficiency really will pay for itself from savings in fuel bills.

In speech in February (thanks to @melstarrs on twitter for the link), Andrew Stunell was adamant that the consequential improvements policy will go ahead and that the government will resist the u-turns of the past. ‘It’s the grand old Duke of York of building regulations policy,’ he said. ‘But this time we’re going to do it.

Let’s hope he’s not compelled to get to the top of the hill and march back down again. Let’s hope that Conservative MPs remember that it was not a Lib Dem or a junior minister who promised this would be ‘the greenest government ever’. 


Readers' comments (7)

  • Yet another stealth tax it appears - tax paid by the manufacturer of the additional materials and of course the extra VAT the purchaser will need to pay !

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  • Jon Southall

    "Both times vested interests and political cowardice killed the idea off" Really Jules.

    What vested interests? Do you mean the interests of home owners who would be forced to incur costs and possibly debt to pay for someone else's 'idea'? The Government realised the proposals would effectively mean violating individual rights, by forcing home owners to implement and pay for it, and hence the 'cowardice' (or sanity) it displayed by backing down twice before.

    We should be questioning our international obligations on carbon cutting. Where was the consultation with those who would have to pay for it, before the politicians committed us? Whether or not improvements pay for themselves in the long run, is for the home owners to judge for themselves. If they agree, they'll invest. Why wouldn't they if the figures stack up? We have to remember it is their money at stake - no-one has the right to dictate to them what they will spend it on - even if they have the means of compulsion at their disposal.

    "Let’s hope he’s not compelled to get to the top of the hill and march back down again." Quite frankly I hope he meets an impassable object on his way.

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  • Jules Birch

    Ha! I had a feeling you might not agree, Jono. I guess it depends whether you agree that with the need to cut carbon emissions or not. If you believe that they are causing global warming, with possibly catastrophic consequences, then we need to act much more urgently than we are doing now and existing homes are too big a source of emissions to ignore. There are times when the public good trumps individual rights and the job of the government of the day has to find a politically acceptable way to sell the policy. The obvious problems are the upfront costs and the payback time and that is what the Green Deal is seeking to address. If we wait for individuals to make their own decisions we will be waiting a long, long time...and it will possibly be too late. If, on the other hand, you don't believe in global warming...

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  • Jon Southall

    Jules - you seem to be making two arguments now. The first is 1) if it doesn't cost home owners in the long run to improve their homes, then there is nothing wrong in compelling them to improve them now, and 2) if you agree with the catastrophic climate change hypothesis, then improving homes now is an imperative.

    Firstly, there are never times when violating individual rights can be considered ethical. Individual rights should not be something that can be voted away by a 'politically acceptable' majority, who happen to be in favour of a particular policy.

    Secondly, arguments like 1 and 2 are both arguments in favour of compulsion. Supporters of compulsion are admitting they want to force home owners to pay to improve their homes, and implicitly, to force them to work for this purpose regardless of home owners own judgement. This position is not as ugly and crude as slavery, but it is a close cousin. Saying the owners probably will get their money back, or that they may possibly be saving the world, doesn't justify compulsion. Would a slave master forcing slaves to build a hospital, be justified if they were to argue the slaves would be helping to save lives and would (eventually) be fed the calories they used up? The principle of it is wrong.

    If you have evidence showing home owners inefficient homes and the 'extra' carbon emissions produced, were damaging your life in some way, and this could convince a court of law, then you could justify compulsion (i.e. to compensate you). I suspect if you could identify such harm done, the cost owed to you by the home owners in question would be minimal - and much less than the cost of the home improvements they may be forced to purchase. Imagine if you were to try and seek compensation from someone who gets the same bus as you and subjects you to passive smoke every day while you wait. How much luck do you think you would have getting compensation from them? Both arguments in favour of compelling home improvements are absurd.

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  • Jon Southall

    Indeed Patricia.

    This is a reciprocal exchange, only the recipient does not know it and is not bound by it - the farmer is expecting to get back from the recipient what he has given *instead of* the inferior corn seeds he is used to getting from them. His act of sharing is a means to his own ends. It is not a truly selfless act, he only gives to others freely because it is to *his* advantage.

    Some people do not understand this, and make the claim, based on this parable, that acting selflessly (acting without concern for oneself) is consistent with acting in our self-interest (acting with concern for oneself). This claim is of course nonsense (contradictory).

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  • It was and is a very bad idea, this Agenda 21 Sustainability directive which makes human life unsustainable. This carbon based tax to which no-one has agreed legally or lawfully is to usher in an electronic economy based on carbon credits and debits. The humongous private profits from this dreadful scam will support the rise of IndoChina as the next Empire base is being built in the closing stages of Ango-American Western Empire and that's chips for us.

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  • I think you are absolutely right Jono it was complete and utter nonsense

    Our bodies are breaking down under the strain of the intoxication of or shared body, on earth Albert La Chance

    back now to the top of the hill.

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