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A disaster for energy efficiency inside DCLG

The following is a piece written by Andrew Warren and published in ENDS Report 467, January 2014, pp. 30-31.

The past three and a half years for Eric Pickles appears to have been a litany of failure, countering the prime minister’s energy efficiency aim for Britain.

Prime minister David Cameron has set a challenge for his cabinet: “I want Britain to be the most energy-efficient nation in Europe.” But seemingly there is one member working in the opposite direction.

Eric Pickles has been the secretary of state for the Department for Communities and Local Government since the coalition took office in May 2010. During that time, he has presided over, indeed sometimes personally made, a series of policy decisions which completely undermine Cameron’s objective.

The list of failures is as consistent as it is long. In each case Pickles seems wilfully to have sought to obstruct progress. This is despite his having been the chairman of the Conservative Party which promoted the catchphrase “vote blue, go green”.

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 they were many years behind European countries with similar climates. In exchange for a roadmap providing relative certainty on timing and extent of change, the construction industry invested in training and product development, towards zero-carbon (or very low-carbon) buildings.

The deal stuck. In 2006 and 2010, the improvements were made smoothly. The next round of changes were due to start last April – the final round before zero-carbon homes were due to be introduced in 2016. Despite issuing a consultation document in January 2012 promising these upgrades, they did not go ahead as scheduled. Instead they will come into force 12 months late, in April 2014.

Even when they do proceed, they will deliver far less than intended: a 6% rather than a 25% improvement for new homes and a 9% rather than a 20% improvement in non-residential buildings, based on 2010 levels.

But it has long been established that vast numbers of new homes fail to comply with the minimum building regulation standards. Almost inexplicably, there appears to be no government system for monitoring compliance.

If a washing machine or refrigerator is put on the market that does not deliver the promised energy savings, the National Measurement Office can take out criminal proceedings. Yet nobody has ever been prosecuted for failing to comply with the energy conservation parts of the building regulations. And countless independent studies have revealed that, once you get beyond one or two bedroom apartments, it is a minority of homes that meet even the minimum energy standards. The rest are all breaking the law and Pickles is apparently wholly unconcerned.

The position is, if anything, worse for existing buildings. New EU laws state that all advertising for a building sold or leased should include its A-G energy label. And each new occupant must receive energy performance details and how it can be improved.

Independent surveys have revealed that these legal requirements are seldom observed. Pickles’ department has not only failed to adequately monitor compliance, it has not ensured that council trading standards officers are monitoring the advertising requirements – so buyers and lessors are not informed of buildings’ energy efficiency standards. But last September Pickles had to compensate the scheme administrators, Landmark (a Daily Mail subsidiary), with a whopping £5.7m from public funds, because at least six million lodgement fees of £5.36 for energy certificates had not been paid.

An earlier EU directive had led to display energy certificates being displayed 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 not, in part because now Pickles has also whimsically decided that smaller buildings need only renew every ten years. And he is not requiring the commercial sector to display such certificates, but instead mandating that “in a prominent place” there will only be details of a building’s theoretical performance. His department has been unable to cite any support for such a perverse interpretation of a European directive.

Such idiocy occurred largely because he omitted to consult 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 – even if 82% 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 initially claimed an £11bn saving to the economy and the stimulation of 2.2 million Green Deals.

Other examples of bad faith include the failure to set any energy efficiency targets in the revised guidance for local authorities for the Home Energy and Conservation Act. And it is an open question whether landlords really believe that DCLG is committed to enforcing the requirement of the Energy Act 2011 that F and G-rated properties cannot be leased after 2018.

Pickles is currently consulting on removing from the statute book the Planning and Energy Act. This permits local authorities to set higher minimum standards for new buildings – an act much deployed by the London mayor Boris Johnson, who requires new commercial and residential buildings to deliver 40% better energy performance than the regulations mandate.

A damaging u-turn
This act was an unusual one. It was put onto the statute book in 2008 by opposition Conservative backbencher Michael Fallon (now an energy minister) cheered on by his then party chairman as an excellent mix of localism and environmentalism. Who was this chairman? Why, Eric Pickles, who five years on is apparently seeking another personal u-turn, further damaging the environment.

I am not qualified to form a judgment on Eric Pickles’ effectiveness in other policy areas but 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 the prime minister’s declared objectives.

As Cameron reminds us: “In a race for limited resources, it is the energy efficient that will win the race.” Perhaps Pickles should be donning his running shoes?

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