The Prime Minister has set the challenge to his Cabinet: “I want Britain to be the most energy-efficient nation in Europe”. Sadly it seems that one member is consistently working in precisely the opposite direction.
Eric Pickles has been the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government ever since the Coalition took office almost three years ago. During that time, he has presided over, indeed sometimes personally made, a whole series of policy decisions undermining David Cameron’s declared objective.
The litany of failure is as consistent as it is long. Let me seek to enumerate just some of these failures where in each case Mr. Pickles seems wilfully to have sought to obstruct progress. This despite his having been the chairman of the Conservative Party who promoted the catchphrase “Vote Blue, Go Green.”
He has undone effective policies he inherited. Back at the start of the century, the government and the building sector came together to agree a pathway to higher new building energy standards, at a time when ours were 25 years behind those adopted in European countries with similar climates. In exchange for a roadmap providing relative certainty regarding timing and extent of change, the construction industry undertook to invest in the necessary training of operatives and product development, eventually to achieve zero (or very low carbon) carbon buildings.
The deal stuck. In 2006, and again in 2010 the improvements were made smoothly, and without discord or rancour. The next round of changes had been due to start next month, the final round before Zero Carbon Homes were due to be introduced in 2016. Despite issuing a consultation document back in January 2012 promising these upgrades, they will not now go ahead in April.
Even when they finally proceed, they will inevitably deliver far less than intended. Although it has long been established that vast numbers of new homes fail to comply with the minimum building regulations standards, nobody at Mr. Pickles’ department monitors compliance.
In contrast, if you put on the market a washing machine that doesn’t deliver the promised energy savings, the National Measurement Office, part of the Department for Business Innovation & Skills can – and does – take out criminal proceedings against you. Such goods can cost just 1 per cent of the price of a new home. Yet nobody has ever been prosecuted for failing to comply with the energy conservation parts of the building regulations.
The position is, if anything, worse with existing buildings. Under new EU laws, all advertising for a building either sold or leased is supposed to include its A to G energy label. And each new occupant must receive details of the energy performance, and how it can be improved. A series of independent surveys have revealed that these legal requirements are seldom observed. Such is Mr. Pickles’ department indolence that not only have they never troubled to monitor levels of compliance, they even omit to inform council trading standards officers of the need to monitor advertising requirements – thus ensuring that even the most diligent council officer helps breach the law.
An earlier EU directive had led to the introduction of display energy certificates in the foyers of 42,000 public buildings. Renewed annually, and reflecting annual energy usage, they were stimulating big efficiency improvements. But since 2010 there has been no pressure to keep these updated, so many are failing to do so, in part because now Mr. Pickles has also whimsically decided that smaller buildings need only renew every ten years. And he is perversely not requiring the commercial sector to display such useful certificates, but instead mandating that “in a prominent place” there will be details only of a building’s theoretical performance.
Lack of consultation
Such idiocy occurred largely because he refused to consult with anybody about how the final text of the new buildings directive should be implemented. Perhaps it is because he knows that, even if he does run a public consultation, he may subsequently reverse his position entirely – even if 82 per cent of respondents endorse his original proposal. This is what happened in the case of his infamous “consequential improvements” consultation- a policy he now rejects despite having claimed £11bn saving to the economy and the stimulation of 2.2m Green Deals.
Other examples of bad faith include the refusal to permit any targets in the revised guidance for local authorities for the Home Energy Conservation Act (despite it being legal to do so); and the covert briefing to landlords that the outlawing under the Energy Act 2011 of F and G rated properties after 2018 will never be implemented in practice, and even if implemented never monitored.
I am not qualified to form a judgment upon Eric Pickles’ effectiveness in other areas of policy outwith that which directly affects the use of energy in buildings. For all I know, he may well be Demosthenes and Ghandi combined. What I do know is that to date his period in office has been an almost unmitigated disaster so far as the energy efficiency agenda is concerned. And certainly so far as achieving Cameron’s declared objectives.
As Mr. Cameron reminds us: “In a race for limited resources, it is the energy efficient that will win the race.” Perhaps Mr. Pickles should be donning his running shoes PDQ.
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