Tuesday, 02 September 2014

Conservatory conundrum

From: Green paper

From the extraordinary manner in which the government has aborted its plans for consequential improvements as part of the changes to building regulations, one could be forgiven for assuming the proposals were toxic to the electorate.

Following a series of negative Daily Mail front pages, the Tories, still smarting from the ‘pasty tax’ and ‘granny tax’, have back-tracked as far away as possible from the whiff of the next PR-tax disaster: a ‘conservatory tax’. The line spun from Downing Street is that consequential improvements was a ‘bonkers’ Lib Dem idea that somehow slipped through the net – but don’t worry, David Cameron himself is intervening to make sure there is to be no cap on aspiration.

As we reveal this week, Lib Dems are seething at the way they have been scapegoated in all this. They are especially irritated that housing minister Grant Shapps and communities secretary Eric Pickles, who both supported the policy only two months ago when it was introduced by Lib Dem communities minister Andrew Stunell, have now u-turned and briefed against it. Despite being a coalition, the Tories have failed to consult the Lib Dems on the decision to drop the proposals even before the consultation process is over.

It was always known that consequential improvements were not an easy sell, and the housing sector applauded the coalition for being brave enough to push on ahead where the previous government had failed twice. Presumably some Tory policy bods did their homework on this and reported to senior Tories the policy is plain unpalatable to Joe Public – especially at a time when even good stories have a habit of turning bad. 

Well, what would be your reaction if I were to tell you that they were wrong? That contrary to being toxic to voters, the majority of the public actually support of the introduction of the so-called ‘conservatory tax’?

It’s true - they do. According to a You Gov poll of 1,650 adults across Britain, weighted across the regions and political parties, carried out on the 12th and 13th April, 51 per cent are in favour of the changes to Building Regulations. A minority of 33 per cent oppose the idea, while 16 per cent don’t know. The results are buried on page six of a regular public opinion poll carried out with The Sunday Times and probably haven’t been found because they don’t use the words ‘conservatory tax’ or ‘consequential improvements’.

For the sake of transparency, this is what the poll asked: ‘Changes have been proposed to building regulations to make houses more environmentally friendly. It has been suggested that if people want to improve their house, such as by building an extension, adding a conservatory or fitting a new boiler, they should also have to make their house more energy efficient, such as by adding loft or wall insulation. Would you support or oppose these new requirements?’

Now, that is a pretty straight forward question which received a pretty straight forward response: overwhelming support. Had the same poll added that the process of making homes more energy efficient could be done at no upfront cost through the green deal, I suspect the result would be more compelling still.

Of course, had the poll asked whether people supported a ‘green stealth tax that will cost homeowners hundreds of pounds on top of the thousands they will spend on vital extensions’ then I am sure the response would have been very different. But that is the point – the reality of what the government was proposing has been lost in hysterical rhetoric.

On the face of it, as Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud said this week, the proposals are as sensible as sensible can get. ‘First, under proposals, conservatories below 30 square metres in size are exempt. Second, common sense prevails in that if projected energy savings fall below the cost of improvements, the homeowner can legitimately refuse to carry them out. Third, the improvements will be eligible for generous green deal funding. The green deal saves you money. If that makes it a tax, let’s have more of them.’

I am not going to go into any particular depth about the merits of the policy – this is partly because for most social landlords the details are not wholly relevant and secondly because it appears that merit is fairly irrelevant, anyway. Politics can confound logic from time to time in the mad chase for votes. But when sensible policies are abandoned on the back of misleading press coverage, and it turns out that most people would vote for that policy anyway then serious questions have to be asked.

So what is the impact of all this? I would echo the words of Paul King, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council who described consequential improvements as ‘the best tool in the box for driving forward the green deal’.

This should be considered carefully. It was a useful tool for driving demand for the green deal, but it is in no way the same thing as the green deal, and, though useful, is not going to make or break the scheme.

The real damage here is to the reputation of the green deal. The already fragile new brand has had a rough time of it.

As if it hadn’t received enough negative press of late, the widespread confusion between a ‘conservatory tax’ and the green deal has only made things worse. As we reported, Mr Shapps responded to an Inside Housing query to dismiss reports in the Sunday Telegraph, since echoed in the New Statesman, that he, Mr Pickles, employment minister Chris Grayling and chancellor George Osborne want to see the entire green deal scrapped. But these ministers, who should be following the example of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in singing the praises of the scheme to the national press, were hardly quick out the blocks to rubbish the stories.

The green deal has been tarnished with the consequential improvements brush. It is now up to the government spin machine to ensure that the green deal is clearly differentiated from the ‘conservatory tax’ in the public eye. Mr Cameron must also throw his political weight behind supporting the green deal with the vigour of a man with a lot to lose.  

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