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Breathing new life into an old bill

ImageInitial success for the Home Energy Conservation Act was replaced by apathy and withdrawal. Can the new Energy Minister revive this legislation?

For a decade, the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 (HECA) was routinely described as the “single most important item of legislation designed to help save energy.” Then for seven years it was ignored. Now Ministers are determined to “breathe new life” into the Act.

Energy minister, Greg Barker, intends to ensure it “forms an important part of the government’s strategy to ensure coherent and joined-up implementation of the Green Deal right across the country.”

Initially, HECA required each local authority in Britain with housing responsibilities to draw up plans to improve the energy performance of the area’s residential stock, both private and public by 30 per cent between 1996 and 2011. And then to report annually on progress towards implementation.

We have details of just how much was achieved under the Act during its first eight years. The headline figure was impressive. In 2005 the then environment minister Lord Bach stated that HECA had already delivered savings of 93.4 terawatt hours (TWh) of domestic fuel.

But evidence subsequently got scarcer and scarcer. No subsequent cumulative savings figure seems to have been collated, let alone published. It would seem that government just forgot about the Act. Until the Green Deal became the Coalition Government’s flagship policy.

Support of Government

HECA was a Private Members Bill promoted in 1995 by former Lib Dem President Diana (now Baroness) Maddock, when she was an MP. It obtained the active support of the government. The present Prime Minister David Cameron has cited it as an early example of strong ecological commitment by the Conservatives.

During passage of the legislation, the Conservative environment minister of state (and the only minister ever to have “minister for energy efficiency” as his formal title!), the late Robert Jones, stated that “we want to set a 30 per cent savings target for every local authority.”

The incoming Blair government strongly supported HECA. In 1999, the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott published a statutory report on progress. He stated that “a 30 per cent improvement target, of domestic energy efficiency by 2010 based on 1996 levels, was deliberately set as a demanding one. Many have embraced their role as a facilitator of change”.

Five years later, the government’s “Energy Efficiency: Plan for Action” concluded that “HECA had achieved success in ensuring that local authority attention is now focused more closely on the energy efficiency of all housing”.

Indeed that was true. On a straight trajectory of improvement, by 2005 one in three authorities was already reporting performance well ahead of requirements. In contrast, others were returning far lower figures; in some cases, there had been minimal if any improvement recorded.

Many of the more successful authorities were beneficiaries of the Energy Saving Trust’s imaginative HECAction scheme. In the four years that the scheme operated, HECAction changed from simply rewarding the best performers, to trying to ensure that every local authority participated. Indeed much of the programme became devoted to offering help and guidance to those where least progress had been made.

In practically every authority, designated officials were charged with delivering greater energy efficiency, not just in those buildings where the council paid the fuel bills, but throughout the area. Frequently they were called HECA officers. Progressive councils set up interdisciplinary teams to drive forward major energy improvements.

But after the 2005 general election, there was a palpable loss of momentum. Ministers changed, civil servants changed. HECAction was abandoned. The sense of ownership vanished. As did HECA officers. There were but half-hearted attempts even to collect reports from local authorities. Details of progress were only published years after the event. Ennui had set in, particularly in the civil service.

Deliberate distortion

A consultation document was issued in December 2007. This proposed withdrawing HECA, falsely stating that “analysis has found little evidence that HECA is driving improvements in household energy efficiency”. It deliberately distorted by understatement and omission the previously well-documented achievements.

It is significant that the then Secretary of State, the astute Hilary Benn, eventually instructed his officials not to proceed with the attempted repeal. He recognised, in the absence of any other statutory requirements, and with discretionary budgets so restricted, that too many councils might be tempted to wind down their teams involved in promoting energy saving in the community. It is very evident that this is happening in other spheres of voluntary local authority activity. Why would energy saving be so different?

Greg Barker’s “revitalisation” of HECA is being warmly welcomed. This month should see revised guidance published. New targets will need to be established locally, both for overall energy improvements and especially towards fuel poverty eradication. That happy epithet, about the “single most important item of legislation designed to help save energy”, should become pertinent all over again.

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    Jon Lewes

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    Dear Andrew Warren

    Home Energy Conservation Act 1995

    Finding your blog dated last year,14.06.12 (above), and reading your point that “New targets will need to be established locally, both for overall energy improvements and especially towards fuel poverty eradication” causes us to grimace wryly..

    We are reading through all of the Further Reports March 2013 for the seven Councils in Somerset, that have been published, and so far we can see that it is not just the setting out of new targets that is necessary to revitalise action under the Act but statements of how exactly those targets are to be met that are needed.

    As the only independent Home Energy Centre in Somerset, and possibly in UK, offering free, impartial advice and guidance to the public, we know from day-to-day conversations with enquirers that the public generally is a long, long way from understanding what is required of them to get involved in energy-efficiency measures for their home. With information and guidance they well decide to act ..is it the Councils that HECA says will provide that information, and guidance ?

    We have found over the last 18 months since the Centre was opened in Ilminster, South Somerset by two of us,an environmentalist and a green accountant (myself), that some 65% of enquiries have come from homeowners moving home..ie. only when the inertia is overcome because of the house-move does the question of checking out energy-efficiency move up the householder’s agenda, and then only from the point of view of cost-savings, not CO2e savings.

    The Centre participated last year in local Green Deal consultations with the Local Authority and acted as lead-community-based group for Our Green Deal in Somerset, the LA initiative to distribute free Green Deal Assessments in the SSDC area. (Unfortunately, of course, the Green Deal’s problems with software and contracts has been perhaps more of a hindrance than a help at this early stage to encourage householders to take first/next steps with energy-efficiency measures).

    Other than having a fragile involvement with the Green Deal at the lowest level possible (Promotion) our Local Authority has not announced the actions it will be taking to meet its HECA targets other than confirming in the Further Report that the Authority will carry on with its implementation of its already-published :

    – Carbon Reduction & Climate Change Adaptation Strategy
    .. “outlines how the council is proposing to reduce carbon emissions in buildings it owns and controls”
    http://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/media/89769/carbon_strategy_9th_march_2010.pdf

    – Action Plan 2012 – 2015
    .. “seeks to encourage businesses, individuals and communities to install energy and carbon reduction measures such as improved insulation and other measures”
    http://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/media/431402/12a.pdf

    We have found only one specific action to be undertaken by the Authority itself itemised in its Action Plan – that the Council ” will aim to improve the energy efficiency of at least 300 private sector houses per year, by April 2015″. No details are yet published as to the target list for the location of the 300 homes for Year 1, 2012. The other Actions itemised are all about liason/interreaction with other parties.

    My reason for this long Comment is to understand perhaps from your Association’s research whether most District Councils in UK have embarked on a robust energy-efficiency programme or whether all are waiting for more guidance on how to get going on complying with the “single most important item of legislation designed to help save energy”.

    Regards
    Jon Lewes

    Switch Off Fossil Fuels.Now.

    Jon Lewes, Coordinator
    localGen Home Energy Centre
    8 Ditton Street, Ilminster, Somerset TA19 0BQ
    t. 01460 250986 m. 0751 8039458
    http://www.localgen.org.uk
    A Good Energy Generation Partner
    A Genesis (KEG) Participant
    localGen Ltd Reg in England 07764385

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