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Why repeal the UK’s most successful item of energy-saving legislation?

ImageThe government seems intent on repealing the Home Energy Conservation Act with a voluntary alternative that will do nothing to improve councils’ performance in saving energy

The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 (HECA) has long been described as “the single most important item of legislation designed to help save energy.” So why then has the government just run a “public consultation” exercise, the main objective of which is to justify removing it from the statute book?

The Act itself is quite simple in concept. It requires each local authority with housing responsibilities to do two things. Initially, it has to prepare a detailed study, showing how, across the subsequent 15 years, energy efficiency in homes within the local authority area would be improved by an average 30%. And then to provide an annual report upon progress.

Toothless reporting scheme

So, according to the government consultation paper, this just means that “in practice, the HECA is a reporting scheme”. And apparently a pretty toothless one at that, as over the years certain councils have become more and more dilatory even regarding reporting upon progress. One Essex council has still to produce a single report, after 11 years.

But others have achieved far, far more. The Act enabled progressive councils to set up interdisciplinary teams to drive forward major energy improvements. Not only in the council’s housing stock. Not even restricted to homes run by housing associations. But in privately owned, even in privately rented homes. Around 1 in 4 local authorities are up with the target improvements, some have even reached the 30% improvement goal several years ahead.

Downplaying success

But still the government consultation document downplays these successes. By stating that “analysis has found little evidence that HECA is driving improvements in household energy efficiency”, the obvious intention was to elicit responses that concurred with its objective: repeal of the Home Energy Conservation Act.

What is so venal about introducing such deliberate bias into ostensibly neutral consultation documents, is that such statements are simply not true. So it distorts, by understating and omitting, the very real achievements of the Act. Achievements previously well documented by the Government itself.

There are claims that the Act never had any specific numerical savings objectives attached to it, so nobody could ever tell if it had worked. What nonsense. This doesn’t just ignore the solemn commitments about 30% target improvements given to Parliament by ministers as the Act became law. It also conveniently forgets subsequent government circulars which cited the same figure. And statements of formal objectives placed upon government websites (now surreptitiously withdrawn). It ignores reports upon progress, made to Parliament by the former Deputy prime Minister, John Prescott, when he had ministerial responsibility for energy efficiency. Even the previous DEFRA review of progress on HECA, published in 2001, vanishes.

Seeking to dismiss HECA as just a toothless reporting scheme, DEFRA failed to include in its briefing to consultees any reference to the provisions of the Sustainable Energy Act 2003 specifically linked to HECA. This Act provides powers for the Secretary of State to issue energy efficiency directions to slacking local authorities, requiring them to take measures which will result in a specified improvement in energy efficiency by a specified date. DEFRA fails to explain why they have never used these powers upon any councils that have treated the1995 Act’s requirements with contempt.

Voluntary replacement

In place of HECA, DEFRA officials propose two new council performance indicators (NI 186 and NI 187) as an “adequate” replacement. Yet no evidence is offered that these indicators – improvements under which would be entirely voluntary for councils – would produce any better result in either carbon or energy saving terms that continuing with, more important enforcing, that 30% improvement target. It is noticeable that DEFRA publish no projections regarding what savings they anticipate such indicators will deliver, either net or in combination with other schemes.

The daft aspect of this volte face on support for HECA is that it belies success. Even as recently as 2005, the then environment minister Lord Bach was claiming in the House of Lords that, in its first eight years, HECA had delivered savings of 93.4 terawatt hours (Twh) of domestic fuel. To put this figure in perspective, this is a larger saving figure than that attributed to the entire first phase of the Energy Efficiency Commitment (86.7Twh) – where targets were overshot by 40%.

HECA remains the Act of Parliament with the potential to deliver most energy saving in existing homes. The government now has all the powers it needs to ensure these savings are realised. It will never do so if it adopts as policy such a perverse distortion as those contained with its consultation document. The proposal to withdraw HECA must be disavowed by environment secretary Hilary Benn immediately.

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