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The strange tale of the Secretary of State, the DECs, and the quiet consultation

Last Wednesday Communities Secretary Eric Pickles concluded an unusually swift and unpublicised (at least, by him) “public consultation” into whether there is any purpose in requiring Display Energy Certificates (DECs) for public buildings.

These are the A to G ratings which for the past seven years you should have expected to find exhibited “in a prominent position” in any of the 58,000 buildings occupied by the public sector, that you might be visiting. That means central and local government offices, libraries, sports centres, schools and colleges, hospitals and surgeries, museums, and so on.

This very Thursday – just six working days after his “public consultation” closed – Pickles is due to receive from his officials their considered conclusions. How do I know this?

I am the present chair of the British Energy Efficiency Federation. The membership of BEEF is made up of 18 of the trade associations most directly involved with the energy efficiency market: it was created by the then relevant Department back in 1996, and has continued to meet on a quarterly basis under the auspices, and in the offices, of whichever Department holds the energy efficiency brief (currently DECC).

It has always had the right to be able to invite the lead civil servant dealing with a pertinent policy area to attend its next quarterly meeting, to spend 30 minutes discussing it in depth with member associations.

It has long been understood in all relevant Departments that, given appropriate notice, officials would automatically attend (or in special circumstances, send a deputy). At the start of this Parliament, when our mandate was renewed, the DECC director-general gave me the categorical assurance that if necessary he would step in, to ensure “co-operation”.

The day after this consultation appeared on the DCLG website (unusually there was no formal press release to announce it, let alone the customary parliamentary statement), I wrote to the relevant DCLG official inviting her to attend the latest quarterly plenary meeting, being held today. Several weeks later I was told that nobody would be available. Upon inquiry, I was told that this was because the following day a paper was set to be agreed with their Secretary of State, Pickles, for approval.

Attempts to meet on an earlier day outwith the formal BEEF plenary were rebuffed. As indeed DCLG has done with any other requests to discuss the implications of the consultation, made by professional bodies heavily involved currently with the delivery of DECs. This includes the Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers, the Property and Energy Professionals Association, the UK Green Building Council, the Alliance of Energy Assessor Associations, and sundry others.

Given that parliament is not officially due to be prorogued for the election until the week after next, there is still just about time for a new Statutory Instrument on DECs to be agreed and banged through a demob happy parliament.

The concern is that this might put into law the most extreme option on which DCLG have consulted – i.e. the abolition of DECs altogether, stating that as DECs are not per seneeded to comply with the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), they therefore constitute ‘gold-plating’ – and can be abolished altogether. All building energy certificate requirements in England and Wales might in principle be satisfied by an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC, based on theoretical rather than actual energy consumption), renewed only every 10 years.

But even if DECs are retained in some form, DCLG is proposing unilaterally to exclude schools and universities from the regime, even though they constitute around half of the buildings that currently have a DEC. The proposed streamlining goes further than this: it anticipates exempting schools and universities from needing a DEC for any building that does not have an area of at least 500 metres squared used as a community centre in the evenings on a daily basis’.

To get legalistic, DCLG is stating (alarmingly without seeking to consult on this point) that buildings failing this criterion are simply not “frequently visited by the public”, and therefore not required by the EPBD to display an energy certificate.

The other trigger for an existing building to get an energy certificate is when it is sold or let. Given that school and university buildings are rarely sold or let, DCLG effectively is adding these buildings to the list of those exempted by the EPBD from the energy certificate regime altogether. Like historical monuments and places of worship, they will not need an energy certificate, period – EPC, DEC, on display or not.

It can be argued that to do this would breach both the spirit and probably the letter of the EPBD. But this would also miss the point. If they are a form of gold-plating, it is reasonable for DCLG to seek evidence in financial terms that undermines the continuation of DECs, and how they might be improved.

However, the consultation omits any suggestions for making the DEC regime more effective, strengthening its potentially beneficial impact on the energy management of public buildings. Literally all the proposals for “improvement” constitute cutting back the present requirements on the grounds that this would reduce the burden of regulation.
The consultation’s cost-benefit analysis is completely one-sided. It highlights the cost of doing DECs, but not their benefits in terms of triggering energy saving activity.

Although it may be difficult to say categorically how much the presence of a DEC per seinfluences reductions in energy use, there has been a definitive study of all DECs lodged up to June 2012, by Hong and Steadman of University College London. This showed definitively that those buildings where DEC compliance was taken seriously, and renewed their DEC every year, collectively achieved substantial energy savings that completely outweighed the relatively trivial cost of each energy survey.

When DECs were first introduced, the original UK Statutory Instrument Explanatory Memorandum justified their annual renewal as cost effective (as against any 10 year renewal) by estimating the increased energy savings DECs would generate. Table 14 of that document estimates annual DECs to be more cost beneficial by £457m net present value. Its Annex C set out all the reasons why DECs are preferred to EPCs and why annual renewal is the most cost effective option.

For some curious reason, Pickles’ “public consultation” makes reference neither to that initial impact assessment nor to the subsequent empirical study from London University. Nor does it to the losses to the public purse of the failure by around half of the 58,000 public buildings ever to have displayed any DEC at all. None of which have ever been fined for that breach of the law.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of all is Pickles’ failure even to consider how the existence of an annual DEC has improved the rating of his own Departmental HQ at St Philips Place, Birmingham, where a low G rating in 2009, improved to an E in 2010, a D in 2011, and a C in 2012. This means that building will be emitting far fewer greenhouse gases than before. And its lower fuel bills will mean that it is operating at a far lower cost to the taxpayer.

Given his deplorable record on anything to do with energy efficiency in buildings, it is obviously Eric Pickles’ desire to end his five years in office, by introducing a last minute Statutory Instrument that “gets rid of a load of bureaucracy”.

I am in no doubt that the majority of responses he will have received will have told him he is wrong to abandon DECs. If in the six working days allocated for assessment, anybody bothered to read them.
But, as he has done with too many of his past public consultations (remember consequential improvements?) I know he is capable of carrying on regardless of any rational argument.

It seems only one thing can stop him now. As the election approaches, Cabinet solidarity is breaking down. Can one hope that other members of the Cabinet, certainly the Liberal Democrat members, will even at this stage be prepared to say loudly and clearly: “No, Eric, no?”

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Comments (4)

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      Andrew Warren

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      I am most grateful to you for drawing attention to this letter, sent to Pickles by the chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben. In it , he makes a very eloquent case for retaining, indeed reinforcing, the present system of energy certification. If he reads no other response to his “public consultation”, Pickles should read this letter, and then folow the advice given.

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    Phil Beynon

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    It is surprising how quickly the wheels of Government can turn; it is a great shame that they cannot be as fast, efficient and effective when it comes to eradicating child and furl poverty.

    Wouldn’t it be somewhat befitting if Pickles last action in Government and for which he is remembered, was an action that was designed to avoid and curtail the interests of a large group of voters!

    Such people will get their say, if only at the election box.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Andrew Warren

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    Phil
    You are quite right to express surprise at the speed with which the analysis of this particular “public consultation” is being done. Contrast this with half year or more it took Mr Pickles to anayse the responses to improvements to Part L of the building regulations. Or the outlawing of F and G rated rentals by private sector landlords. Or indeed whether or not to proceed with consequential improvements. In each of these cases, extreme lethargy was the order of the day. What a strange set of priorities he does have…

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