Pickles progress must now be brought to account
After overwhelming public support for “consequential improvements” to energy efficiency in smaller buildings who can explain the Communities Secretary’s decision to ditch this key plan?
A judicial review is appropriate if a minister is known to have acted irrationally, disregarding facts placed before them in a consultation which they initiated. This is particularly so if they fail to explain why they have opted to reject the weight of evidence before them.
It is my view that the pre-Christmas statement made by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, ruling out implementing any “consequential improvements” requirement for smaller buildings, fulfils that description.
Last January Mr Pickles issued a public consultation proposing that, when households erect extensions or convert garages, around ten per cent further of that cost should be spent on improving the energy efficiency of the original building.
This followed the logic that, however high the efficiency levels of the new part, the overall energy consumption at the address in question will increase. The proposal simply extended existing requirements in place for larger buildings to those below 1,000m2.
Accompanying Mr Pickles’ proposals was an Economic Impact Assessment. That is a key document which tends to be scrutinised by all other Departments of State – not least the Prime Minister’s office, and the Treasury -to ensure that the policies are in line with overall government policy and offer good value for money. Every government department has to give a green light. They all did.
No official consultation can be issued without such clearance. And obviously Mr Pickles’ proposals -which formed part of changes to Part L (conservation of fuel and power) of the English building regulations -did so with flying colours.
One of the reasons for the levels of support given across Government must have been the enormously positive boost to the economy that such “consequential improvements” were deemed likely to provide. Well over £11bn economic benefit, plus over 130m tonnes of lifetime carbon dioxide reductions, would accrue.
Another significant plus factor was the boost that these new requirements would make to the government flagship Green Deal initiative, one of the main highlights of the Coalition Agreement that enable the Prime Minister to commit in May 2010, as he took office, to leading “the greenest government ever.”
Subsequently, it turns out that the official projections for take-up of the Green Deal has been heavily predicated upon the presumption that the consultation proposals would be approved. Absent that, some 2.2m fewer households were reckoned to be likely to take up any Green Deal package.
Several big High Street companies, touted as prospective new entrants to this marketplace, let it be known (sometimes publicly) that their business models for full-scale involvement with this flagship policy assumed that the Government’s “consequential improvements” proposals would go ahead on time.
By “on time” that meant that they would be operating from when the Green Deal officially started, on October 1 2012. Given that the formal consultation closed back in March, that was always perfectly feasible.
Normally, the results of a consultation is analysed within weeks, rather than months. But during the summer Mr Pickles’ department announced absolutely nothing. October arrived. Still, total silence. Apart from regular Parliamentary Answers to concerned MPs that the results would be published, and a decision issued, “shortly”. Or sometimes even “soon”.
Eventually and only after the Green Deal had been operational for ten weeks, Mr Pickles pronounced, “Having considered all the representations and evidence, including the public reaction, I can inform the House that we will not be going ahead with such regulatory proposals in any way.”
So, why had Mr Pickles decided to undertake a complete volte-face from his earlier endorsement? The very first question within the public consultation asked whether or not you favoured such a requirement.
Did those who responded to the formal consultation comprehensively reject the concept of extending “consequential improvements” to cover smaller buildings? I gather not. While curiously Mr. Pickles chose not to not publish these figures, I understand that even back last May his officials had told him respondents were 4:1 in favour. I understand the figure was an 82 per cent majority.
It also belied the results of a YouGov opinion poll, taken last May. This revealed that respondents were nearly 2 to 1 in favour of extensions triggering additional energy improvements. Majorities could be found by gender, by age group, by social grade, by region and -significantly – by supporters of all three political parties.
There is no explanation whatsoever for Mr Pickles’ change of heart. Apart from his formal statement last month, we cannot tell why he has decided to reject a scheme, which, less than a year earlier, he was recommending so strongly. Even though he had demonstrated it to be good for the economy, good for the environment, good for the Green Deal. Essentially, good governance.
His decision is too perverse to remain unchallenged. It is, put bluntly, appalling governance.
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