Breathing new life into an old bill
Initial 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.
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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