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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) on presenting a Bill that raises important issues relating to climate change, energy efficiency and housing.
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Members will have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy express the Government's commitment to supporting micro-generation and improving renewable energy and energy efficiency, so I shall not repeat arguments that were covered in the debate on the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill. I will, however, deal with important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test about the role of the housing sector. We know that housing is responsible for a significant level of carbon emissions, which is why it is so important to address energy efficiency and promote the take-up of renewable energy in both new and existing homes.

We have already made substantial improvements in the energy efficiency of new buildings. Earlier in the autumn we announced new standards in building regulations, which will mean that the total energy efficiency of new buildings will have improved by 40 per cent. in just five years. That is extremely important. It means that we can plan to build more homes than the last Conservative Government planned to build, but with fewer overall emissions. It also means that householders' heating and fuel bills will be reduced. We need to go further, however. The Bill shows the way towards the lifting of unnecessary planning restrictions, which will allow the retro-fitting of micro-generation technologies for existing houses where appropriate. It also envisages a time when it will be commonplace for new houses to be fitted with such technologies, which would meet an appreciable percentage of a home's energy needs.

The Government welcome the Bill's aims, but as my hon. Friend knows, we have some worries about the detail and about the mechanisms for its implementation. We believe that they can be resolved in Committee, however, and it is on that basis that we support the Bill today.

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to report on progress towards the energy efficiency targets in the Housing Act, and on the effects on fuel poverty. We already have mechanisms for reporting on energy efficiency progress, which we think could be incorporated in the process so that Parliament is kept up to date and we have an impetus to ensure that our progress continues. We also think it right for the planning system to play a larger role in improvements in energy efficiency. We have already set out a commitment to planning for renewable energy in planning policy statement 22 and its companion guide, which recommend greater use of renewables including micro-generation, domestic and other small-scale energy installations.

Planning can play a further role in relation to individual homes. It is already possible to install some small renewable energy equipment without needing to apply for planning permission, including photovoltaic cells and solar panels. However, we understand the fear that local authorities can interpret the rules inconsistently, and the view that we could do more.We all recognise that appropriate safeguards need to be in place for neighbours on things such as size and noise, as the Bill recommends, but equally we think that it is
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possible to make it easier for householders to install a range of small renewable energy developments within permitted development, with those safeguards in place.

Mr. Forth : I am a little worried that somewhat concealed in the words that the Minister has just used, although I am sure that it was not deliberate, was the implication that national standards would be applied. Does she not want at least to pay lip service to the new doctrine of localism and to allow much more flexibility for local planning authorities to be more aware of local conditions in applying the things that she has just talked about?

Yvette Cooper: The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a range of areas in which local discretion is important. It is an important principle within the planning system. There is a range of areas where local decisions need to be made to take into account local circumstances. There is also a national planning framework. A range of things are already included within permitted development to ensure that the planning system at local level does not get clogged up by unnecessary applications for very small-scale developments. That is the way in which the permitted development system has worked for a long time.

Where we have concerns with the Bill is that it involves additional piecemeal amendment of the Town and Country (General Permitted Development Order) 1995. One of the reasons we have patchy interpretation of the order at the moment, including around renewable energy, is that parts of it have become unnecessarily complicated, including piecemeal amendments over a long period.

We have already begun a major review of permitted development to simplify the system and to allow appropriate minor development to be taken out of the planning system. We envisage consulting on possible amendments to the general permitted development order next year. That would allow proper consultation to take place about the right balance and safeguards that need to be in place. We believe that that is the right opportunity to look at taking forward the ability of householders to install a range of small renewable energy developments without specific planning permission.

Therefore, we would like to discuss in Committee the right relationship between primary and secondary legislation on this issue. Permitted development is generally dealt with in secondary legislation, so that we can have the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and technology. The Government support the need to promote better energy efficiency and the use of things such as micro-generation and renewable energy in new developments and new homes.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving me a chance to put on the record my support for the Bill. Does she accept that the use of micro-renewables promoted by the Bill could help the Government to comply with their statutory duty under the Housing Act 2004 to increase domestic energy efficiency by 20 per cent. by 2010?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that we want to improve domestic energy efficiency both across
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existing stock and new stock. That is why we think that the Bill raises some important principles. It also raises the issue of building regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test is aware that we have certain concerns about the way in which that matter is dealt with in the Bill. We agree that building regulations are an important tool for improving energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. However, generally they do not specify particular technologies or ways of achieving standards. Instead, they specify outcomes and allow builders and developers flexibility about how to achieve those outcomes.

That is an important principle, because it encourages innovation and it does not prevent competition if new technologies or approaches come forward. It means that regulations do not hamper the take-up of new technologies that may not yet have been anticipated. Therefore, we would be uncomfortable about being committed by this Bill to specifying particular approaches, as opposed to specifying outcomes, within the building regulations.

We also believe that there are additional ways we can promote micro-generation, such as through the code for sustainable buildings, on which we will consult shortly. We have just announced higher standards in building regulations on energy efficiency, too. Clearly, regulations need to be based on what is achievable in practice. We also propose to consider micro-generation as part of the review of existing building regulations that has just commenced. We believe that any concerns can be resolved in Committee, and we hope that we can have further discussions on the detail, including that aspect.

We welcome the emphasis in the Bill on promoting dynamic demand technology and we are happy to support its Second Reading. It raises important issues and will contribute to improving energy efficiency in buildings and promoting new technologies to protect the environment. We look forward to discussing it in Committee.

2.15 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Almost half Britain's 161.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings. Despite all the rhetoric about the importance of joined-up government, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has no statutory obligation to take action to improve energy efficiency, reduce carbon dioxide emissions or mitigate the impact of climate change. I shall keep my comments short because I very much want the Bill to receive a Second Reading.

Last December the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said:

The Secretary of State has admitted the obvious fact that the Labour Government will not reach their target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 20 per cent. below the 1990 level, and that makes it clear that we need firm action and new policies. That is why the Opposition welcome many aspects of the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead).

The Bill is short and concise, and I am sure that it will make a difference to the environment. It contains practical measures that will reduce emissions, help to sustain the environment and save money. Indeed, the
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Micropower Council says that one of its provisions will eliminate the need for planning permission for micro-power plants generating 10 kW or less. Those wishing to install such systems would save about £265. The reduction in red tape and costs that the Bill offers will make micro-generation all the more attractive for Britain's millions of home owners and thousands of small businesses.

Dynamic Demand estimates that the changes promoted by the Bill could lead to savings of about 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year, or more than 1 per cent. of the total carbon dioxide emissions that we produce.

I hope that if the Bill makes further progress, we shall consider including geothermal power as a source of energy within the remit of the Bill. In addition, the Bill could set a higher capacity for micro-generation than that in clause 2(4). Households consume on average between 3,500 and 5,000 kWh per year, and if we empower the public to generate more of the energy for their homes through micro-generation renewables, that would be economically incentivising them—this is the most terrible English; I shall rephrase that. It would give them an economic incentive to sell the excess produced to the national grid.

The Bill will make a positive difference to the environment. It promotes micro-generation and energy efficiency and will serve to hold the Government's policies to account and make them more transparent. It contains measures that the Labour Government should have introduced a long time ago.

2.18 pm

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