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Time to breathe new life into this ailing legislation

ImageAlthough the Home Energy Conservation Act is making a difference, further Government support is required for it to be a total success

The 1995 Home Energy Conservation Act (HECA) is routinely described as “the most important item of legislation concerning energy saving since Hitler’s War.” Consequently it has delivered more energy saving than any other subsequent initiative. Despite this, it isn’t working as well as it might.

The Act itself is short and pithy. It requires every single local authority in Britain with housing responsibilities to draw up plans to improve energy performance of the area’s entire residential stock , public and private , by 30% by 2011. And then to report annually to Government on progress.

We have details of how much has been achieved after eight years (www.ukace.org). The headline figure is impressive. According to the environment minister Lord Bach, implementation of HECA had led by April 2004 to savings of 93.4 terrawatt hours(Twh) of domestic fuel. In contrast, even the highly acclaimed first phase of the Energy Efficiency Commitment – where targets were overshot by some 40% – succeeded in saving just 86.7 Twh.

In practice, as Lord Bach was quick to point out to his questioner Baroness Maddock – who as an MP had steered the original Act onto the statute book – the savings from both initiatives do “overlap”. As they do with other pertinent programmes like Warm Front covering fuel poverty, Decent Homes improving social homes, and so on.

But the fact remains that the government is prepared to ascribe this high level of savings to an Act which, to be honest, they have done precious little to promote themselves. Indeed in the government’s formal action plan for energy efficiency issued 18 months ago, it was conceded that while “the progress is welcome, we realise that more needs to be done”.

By now, on a straight trajectory of improvement, the average Energy Conservation Authority,( as each council is now deemed), should have improved performance by 16%. Some have done so, just over one-third. Indeed some have done far better. But in almost two out of three cases, ECAs are returning far lower figures; in some cases, there has been minimal if any improvement recorded.

Many of the more successful ECAs were early beneficiaries of the Energy Saving Trust’s imaginative HECAction scheme. In the four years it operated, HECAction changed from simply rewarding the best performers, to trying to ensure that practically every local authority participated. Indeed much of the work undertaken within this programme became devoted to offering help and guidance to those ECAs which have historically been less active on energy saving.

Over recent years, I have attended many conferences and workshops with HECA officers. I have been impressed by the overt desire of participants to achieve substantial progress. Equally I have been made very aware of the difficulties which face councils. Very many feel they simply do not have the financial resources to meet that 30% target.

Even those that are currently doing well are reporting that to reach the target may be impossible without substantially more money to invest. Few question the validity of the 30% target. Indeed in the run up to the passage into law of HECA, well over 200 local authorities passed formal motions of support for it. And every political party in Parliament endorsed its validity.

There can be no question that the 30% target is a desirable one to retain. For ecological reasons. To help eliminate fuel poverty. To improve personal comfort. Yes, and to reduce the increasing proportion of household income that will have to be spent on buying fuel.

But with several ECAs reporting less than 1% p.a. improvement so far, it is transparent that under current arrangements, that sensible target will not be achieved. Even those now ahead of the game admit it will be very difficult to meet. The target itself has enormous support from both social and environmental campaigners, who are in turn very alarmed at any suggestion of backsliding.

Some are already being publicly critical of councils not on course. This has understandably led to some resentment : “we are doing our best on meagre resources”. Developing a damaging division between “us” and “them”.

This is sad. Because the reality is that all are on the same side. It is, in effect, a joint problem. Which in turn calls for joint solutions.  Given that the key difficulty is agreed to be the lack of financial resources available to implement HECA, it is worthwhile returning to the actual words of the 1995 Act. In particular, to Clause 7. This makes interesting reading.

” There shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament… (b) any increase attributable to this Act in the sums payable out ofsuch money under any other Act’.

Note the word at the start. “Shall”. Not “may”. It is a duty. The wording of sub-para (b) is crucial. It means that if there are “increases in the sums payable out of such moneys” (i.e. moneys provided by Parliament) attributable to this Act (i.e. HECA), then those increases “shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament.”

In layman’s English, this means that, if an ECA can demonstrate clearly that it is unable to meet its statutory obligations under HECA within existing budgets, it is entitled to require central government to provide the additional resources. As simple as that.

In Para 9.24 of the February 2003 Energy White Paper, the specific commitment was made to “review existing guidelines “on HECA. A year later, in the Action Plan,(para 164), a consultation to that effect was promised “during 2004”. Neither has yet even begun.

If the Home Energy Conservation Act is to live up to the rhetoric of ambition ascribed to it, what is needed is its complete revitalisation. It really is high time government ensured that this takes place. The legilation is on the statute book. Now let’s make it work.


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