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11.45 am

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I shall be relatively brief and I shall concentrate on energy efficiency. I suspect that there is little disagreement about the substance of this important debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor); indeed, I found little to disagree with in his remarks.

I want to explore the part that the Government can play in encouraging good practice, especially through building regulations and by encouraging good design. This applies to new building as well as to refurbishment, on which the debate has concentrated up to now. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will know only too well--he initiated a debate on the issue--there are plans to build 4.4 million new housing units by 2025. That presents an enormous opportunity, although many of us are greatly concerned about where they will be built. By using the building regulations that will be applied to the new houses, tremendous progress could be made towards ensuring that there is no fuel poverty among future generations.

I understand that carbon emissions from domestic energy usage account for about one quarter of the total carbon emissions into the atmosphere. That is of concern to all hon. Members and no one doubts that emissions must be reduced. The question is how to do it. I live in a lovely part of Leicestershire where builders, such as the excellent David Wilson Homes, construct marvellous new, detached houses throughout the countryside. That is one of the problems. Why have we all been conditioned to want to live in detached houses, when terraced houses--as anyone who lives in one knows--are much warmer

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because they have only two outside walls rather than four? This is a serious point. There is nothing wrong with living in a terraced house. After all, extremely rich people want to live in terraced houses in Belgravia--[Laughter.] Hon. Members are grinning, but it is an important point. We are encouraged to live in detached houses, when, for reasons of crime as well as fuel efficiency, living in terraces is much more efficient. We should consider that.

It is difficult for Governments to order builders to build terraced houses, but it is ludicrous for estate agents to say that everybody wants to live in detached houses. We are told we want to live in detached houses. I am not keen on regulation in the matter, but I want the argument to move on so that people want to live in fuel-efficient terraced houses. That is easily said, but more difficult to achieve--but the Government could play a constructive role through building regulations.

The building regulations were last altered in 1993 or 1994. The complaint at the time was that all that was being initiated was a requirement that they be in line with good current practice. We should be looking beyond that--the hon. Member for Bury, North alluded to this--towards, for example, every window in any new building, although not in refurbishments, having to be double glazed. Every house should produce the minimum emissions possible, as is the case in Scandinavia. That could be achieved in new buildings at relatively low cost. We should examine that matter very carefully.

If the building regulations are improved, we shall be able to do an enormous amount to old housing units by properly insulating them, rather than simply bringing them up to a mediocre standard. I have just refurbished a house in London and I insisted to the architect that every hot water pipe should be lagged. Unfortunately, that was not done--and it still has not been done--because the cost of ripping out and relagging all the pipes is enormous. The house is thin and not particularly big, but an enormous amount of hot water is wasted every time the hot water tap on the top floor is used. Taking measures to reduce such waste could bring great savings to many people--to poor people and to rich people, and I do not count myself as being rich. People from all social strata could save a lot of money by not having to run the tap for five minutes before they get hot water. They could realise substantial savings not only for themselves but for the environment.

Much has been said today about fuel poverty. We should never underestimate the type of fuel poverty described by the hon. Member for Bury, North. When I lived in Fulham, my next door neighbour was in her late 80s. Although she lied about her age, one could surmise it by the fact that she had worked in a munitions factory in the first world war. One December, she died from the after-effects of a pneumonia that she contracted in the grotty little flat that she rented. Next door to my house, she sat huddled around a gas stove, always worried about the cost of running it. If my house next door could be warm, why could not hers? I am sure that the House appreciates the horror of fuel poverty.

Another aspect of the matter is the fact that many people--although not the elderly living in rotten accommodation--expect houses to be too warm. Far too often we wander round in our shirtsleeves, although it is the middle of winter; instead of putting on a jersey on

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cold days, we turn up the heating. Last year, an article in the Leicester Mercury described a man who complained that the council had not repaired his boiler during last winter's cold snap. He was photographed in his house, however, sitting in a vest. Although that is only an anecdote, it demonstrates that we should, to help the environment, perhaps consider turning down our heating a bit more. Such action will not affect fuel poverty, but it should be considered.

Paradoxically, reducing energy costs is not good for energy conservation or for the environment. The hon. Member for Bury, North mentioned VAT on fuel. It was disingenuous of those who campaigned for reducing VAT on fuel not to mention the fact that that VAT discouraged fuel consumption. Moreover, increased efficiency in fuel production and in the privatised utilities has resulted in falling prices for gas and electricity.

The Government have a part to play in developing building regulations, and in moving well beyond best practice to the very best practice possible at reasonable cost. I hope that Ministers will consider doing so. I hope also that the House will play its part in encouraging builders and house buyers--which we are all likely to be--to favour efficient terraced houses over the "des res" detached houses that are being built across the country.

11.53 am

Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing this debate on a subject that is clearly of enormous social and environmental importance. As several other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall be very brief and simply put a Scottish slant on the issue.

Home energy efficiency is very topical in Scotland. The latest house condition survey was issued only a couple of months ago and it showed that the mean national home energy rating of homes in Scotland was 4.1, whereas the rating for new properties must be 7, so 93 per cent. of Scottish homes are wasting energy. Moreover, 25 per cent. of all dwellings in Scotland were judged by surveyors to suffer from problems of dampness or condensation; residents judged that the percentage was even higher.

Houses should be energy efficient for three very important reasons. First, energy inefficiency means that houses are expensive to heat. Secondly, energy inefficiency means that houses can become damp, with an effect on health. Thirdly, it means wasting fuel, with increased CO 2 emissions. If all Scotland's homes were brought up to today's energy efficiency standards, CO 2 emissions would be reduced annually by 47 per cent., which is crucial in achieving the Government's objective of reducing CO 2 emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned, energy inefficiency causes excess winter deaths. There is another way of considering those deaths. In the United Kingdom, the gap between winter and summer deaths is 31 per cent., whereas it is 14 per cent. in Sweden and 10 per cent. in Norway. It goes without saying that those countries are much colder.

A recent study in Glasgow found that asthmatics are three times as likely to have dampness in their homes as the control group and that people who suffer from severe

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asthma are in the dampest homes. I was therefore very interested to learn that the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority recently gave money to district councils to provide insulation in damp homes. That was a very interesting precedent in public health policy and I hope that it will be built upon.

Energy inefficiency affects costs. Currently, average householders in Scotland spend a third more than necessary on fuel bills and, of course, the poorest suffer the most. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North again mentioned, the poorest households spend proportionately three times as much on fuel as the average household. A recent study in Granton Medway, in my constituency, indicated that householders there were spending between 10 and 15 per cent. of their income on fuel. However, I am glad to say that, since that work was done, the campaign they waged brought improvements to their homes.

Lone parent families are mentioned in the Scottish house condition survey in the context of a substantially higher incidence of dampness and or condensation. Those families will have even less to spend on heating if lone parents take up work in April and then lose their job. I do not make apologies for repeating that point, because it breaks my heart to see my Government simultaneously damaging their own credibility and lone parents. I shall go on challenging the Government unceasingly until, like an errant teenager, they see the error of their ways.

That appalling policy of my Government is particularly sad, because it overshadows the many exceptional achievements of their first eight months, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North. VAT on fuel has been reduced to 5 per cent. VAT on the installation of energy-saving materials under current grant schemes has been reduced to 5 per cent. More than 10 million payments will soon be made to more than 7 million pensioner households. There has been action to ensure that all pensioners receive the income support to which they are entitled. There has been action, too, of course, on the minimum wage and on welfare into work.

In the Scottish context specifically, we have ensured that the welfare-to-work initiative will have as one of its priorities environmental task force work on home insulation. In Scotland, for next year, we have put £5 million of housing money into the environmental task force, so that there will be additional money for materials. It is important to make the point that comparatively small sums can make a big difference in work on energy efficiency.

I should like to say more about what is happening in Scotland but, because my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy)--who will be presenting her Warm Homes and Energy Conservation (Fifteen Year Programme) Bill later today--wishes to speak, I shall draw my remarks to a close now.

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