From open to obdurate, one minister’s short journey
In 2008 Eric Pickles was chairman of the Conservative Party. In that role, he championed a wholesale conversion of the party’s environmental image, under the slogan “Vote Blue, Go Green”.
Now as Communities Secretary he is presiding over a Department that seems determined to undermine a whole range of sustainable energy measures – including seeking to repeal a key Act of Parliament that he was largely instrumental in placing upon the statute book.
Perversely this seems to be in direct defiance of the Prime Minister. Earlier this year David Cameron made a much-publicised seminal speech at the Royal Society. He was unequivocal. He pledged to make Britain the “most energy-efficient country in Europe.”
He stated: “We are in a global race. And the countries that succeed in that race… are those that are the greenest and the most energy efficient.”
This is a theme that Mr Cameron adopted strongly in Opposition. Together with his then party Chairman, Eric Pickles, he was determined to polish up the party’s ecological credentials. But one of the big frustrations with being in opposition is that mostly it is all about making the right speeches, the correct sound-bites. You can’t push your own legislation onto the statute book.
Private members ballot
With one exception. Each year a handful of backbenchers get their names drawn in the private members ballot. This gives the lucky ones the chance to promote a potential new Act of Parliament. If they don’t cause too many problems for the government, they may just occasionally get to place something worthwhile onto the statute book.
That is what happened in 2008, when a Conservative backbencher called Michael Fallon came top of that ballot. Despite being not desperately well-known for any strong ecological interests, he was nonetheless the subject of a very heavyweight persuasion campaign by his party leaders, led by the party chair. It was to take up something called the Planning and Energy Bill and to then make it into the first new Conservative-inspired environmental Act of Parliament for many years. And so he did. There was even a special Early Day Motion in support of his legislation, prominently backed by Mr Pickles.
The Act provides local authorities with the ability to set specific carbon, renewable energy and energy efficiency targets for new build properties (the so-called ‘Merton Rule’). It also extends local authorities’ power to specify higher standards of energy efficiency and lower carbon energy production than required as the minimum under the building regulations.
It has by any standards been a great success. At current rates of house building (1.69m homes per decade) its progenitor, Merton Council, estimated that if applied nationally the Act would save 160,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per decade.
To give one example, the Greater London Authority took advantage of the new powers to require higher standards for new construction throughout the capital, through its London Plan energy policies. Last month they reported that in 2012 alone “high levels of energy demand reduction with developments exceeding the requirements of Building Regulations through energy efficiency alone. The associated investment of circa £32m will help to reduce consumers’ energy bills.
“As well as reducing energy costs for the occupiers of the new buildings and providing increased security of supply, the energy outcomes will result in reduced fossil fuel use leading to regulated CO2 emission reductions of 36 per cent more than 2010 Building Regulations requirements for developments.”
Housing standards review
The London proposals are now to move to a 40 per cent improvement on 2010 building regulations for all planning submissions to the Mayor from this month.
But during the sleepy days of August Mr Pickles announced in his housing strategy review proposals to do away altogether with the 2008 Planning and Energy Act. He is describing it as unnecessary bureaucratic red tape.
The proposal came out of the blue, even to those who had been involved in a Communities Department task group specifically considering streamlining energy requirements in buildings. It met three times, with the final meeting way back in early February, unable to reach any meaningful conclusions largely because Mr Pickles was taking so long over deciding how to progress with the Part L, the energy section of the Building Regulations.
It took Mr Pickles a record 461 days from consultation closure in April 2012 to late July to make any decisions at all – and these, in line with much of his practice in office, were to water down energy standards and delay introduction by a year.
When the Planning and Energy Act was in Parliament, the only overt hostility came from the volume house builders. It is they who have been urging its repeal, even as their balance sheets boom and profits soar.
Five years ago Mr Pickles defied them, by backing this Act so vigorously. It is obvious that his party leader still appreciates why it is needed. It is obvious that Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, agrees. So why on earth is this former champion of localism suddenly being so obdurate?
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