Previous Section Index Home Page

On that note, I congratulate the Government on introducing eco-communities. I do not know whether the concept of eco-communities appears in the Conservative’s pamphlet, but that notion could be radically deepened and expanded. We should have a debate and engage people in this issue; otherwise they will be left only with the fantastic targets. They hear about Kyoto
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1746
and Bali and they think big numbers, but then they ask themselves what they can do. They think that it is laudable that the Government are setting targets for the reduction of carbon emissions that are miles ahead of those set by everyone else, and we are about to build those targets into law through the Climate Change Bill. We are miles ahead of the rest of Europe, which is quite positive on this issue, and we have managed to get the Americans to catch up a little, but I fear that those big figures, including the one that says that we should not increase the warming of the planet by 2°C, only lead people to ask what they can do about managing the whole planet. There is a disconnection between what a person can do and the targets we are setting.

The target that all homes should be carbon zero by 2016 is laudable, and I say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that I am pretty sure—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the Home Builders Federation is signed up to the zero-carbon targets. I do not want to set house builders against the microgenerators; I do not think that they are at odds. A conversation is going on and a consensus is building that could be useful. However, even if we have the target of zero-carbon homes by 2016, people at the ground floor level will ask what they can do about it. They need to be part of the conversation in a practical way. That is why the Bill reverse engineers the whole process. Rather than setting targets that are left there hanging nebulously, let us try to build the targets into the buildings in the new communities and address the problem through the planning system and local authorities.

I welcome the Bill and applaud the hon. Member for Stevenage for the work that he has put in. [ Interruption. ] Did I get the constituency of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks wrong? What did I say? [Hon. Members: “ Stevenage.”] I do apologise; Stevenage is the new town. I also applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), who has insisted that we rightly keep this issue in the forefront of our minds. Eventually, we will get there. In that spirit, I suggest that this is a modest and reasonable little Bill, and I will be surprised if the Minister says that it is not necessary and that it is all done. We have much more to do. In response to all the contributions I have heard today, I simply say that this matter will not go away. Whether the Bill does or does not go through, we have a lot of work to do to embed its spirit and intention within our communities.

10.25 am

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). I was left feeling that if we are to be condemned to having a Labour Energy Minister, I rather wish that it were still him. I found myself agreeing with a great deal of what he said. I join him in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on his good fortune in the ballot, on the pithy nature of his Bill and on the punch of his argument for its Second Reading.

I was in my hon. Friend’s shoes this time last year when I proposed the Second Reading of the Sustainable Communities Bill. In essence, that Bill was about localism and its premise was that, when it came to decisions about local communities and their future, local people knew best. I am very happy to support this
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1747
Bill, because the same principle is at play here today. My Bill became an Act because it had strong cross-party support and because the central Government got comfortable with the view that it went within the grain of their localism agenda. This Bill is another test of how far the Government are prepared to go down that track. It fundamentally asks, “To what degree are we prepared to stimulate ambition, innovation and diversity among local authorities?”

This Bill sends out a very positive message to the market. It says, “Yes, in the face of the biggest challenge that we face”—namely the transformation of our energy infrastructure—“you, local authorities, be prepared to go beyond the minimum standard that we set in the centre. Help us raise the ground floor”, to use the expression of the right hon. Member for Leeds, West that I liked. The Bill sends out a challenge to the most conservative of industries—the house building industry—to go the extra yard and be more efficient in delivering renewable energy and energy efficiency at a lower cost. That freedom will be put in statute, so that the industry and the market have certainty rather than be exposed to the capriciousness of central Government and the revolving ministerial door.

That is an extremely positive and simple message that sends a much stronger signal to the market than the message coming out of Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks suggested, after 10 years of talking about climate change, the Government have only just got round to recognising what the Stern report trumpeted loud and clear and that we have followed up in our quality of life commission—that planning and land use are fundamental tools in our collective effort to get on top of emissions.

The Government’s approach is in contrast to the Bill’s simplicity. They drip out bland planning guidance that encourages action as long as it does not compromise other social objectives and that comes on top of a botched consultation on the national standards that we need. Anyone who has any doubt about that should listen to the evidence before the Environmental Audit Committee in its inquiry on sustainable homes. The Government’s guidance also comes on top of the debacle on home information packs that we thrashed out many times in the Housing Bill. All that bends towards a target of zero-carbon homes by 2016, which sounds great on the airwaves but is not propped up by any credible detail or strategy for achieving or enforcing it. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, West suggested, surely by now, we have learned that simply expressing a remote target is not enough.

The background to the Bill is fundamentally one of failure. We are failing to control our emissions. As was said by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, emissions of CO2 have risen since 1997. It is not enough for Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and keep talking about the Kyoto target. We know the background to it, and we know why we did well on that target. We know about its inadequacy, and about the scale of the challenge that we face in meeting the targets ahead of us. We know that we are not on top of our emissions.

25 Jan 2008 : Column 1748

Underpinning that general macro-failure is a chronic failure as regards our renewable energy strategy. I have been invited to speak at a few renewable energy conferences held by people who are trying to make money out of the industry, to finance the industry, or to deploy the technology, and I always ask three questions: “How many of you think that the Government’s renewable energy strategy is a success?”, “How many of you think that the UK is the most promising market for renewable energy in Europe?”, and “How many of you think that we are on track to meet our 2010 target, let alone our 2020 target?” To date, I have seen only one hand go up in answer to those three questions, and the person concerned turned out to be a consultant to the Government. When it comes to renewable energy, the Government’s strategy and credibility are in tatters.

As the hon. Gentleman who spoke for the Liberals pointed out, the reality is that we drastically under-perform in Europe when it comes to the deployment and penetration of renewable energy. The Library note mentions the figure of 4 per cent. of total gross energy; that is compared to an EU average of 14 per cent., despite our having some of the best natural resources in Europe. The failure is not just in the relatively low levels of penetration and deployment; it is in the amount of money that we have spent to achieve the little that we have achieved. Both Ofgem and the National Audit Office have been coruscating in their criticism of the Government. The simple fact is that the very limited amount of renewable energy that we produce costs British taxpayers £1.4 billion a year. The cost per tonne of CO2 abated is a staggering £110. By comparison, the average price of carbon under the EU emissions trading scheme in 2006 was about £11.50 a tonne.

We have achieved very little at a high cost, and it is clear that we need a different approach. That is why I wholly applaud the work done by our Front Benchers, particularly the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), through our paper, “Power to the People”, which takes a different approach to decentralising energy.

The other failure that is relevant to the Bill is the failure to transform the energy efficiency of our housing stock. That is a crucial part of our collective approach to climate change, because 50 per cent. of emissions come from our buildings. When it comes to thermal performance, the UK has some of the worst housing stock in Europe. As the Liberal spokesman made clear, if we compare the dynamism and ambition of our Government to that found in Germany, it is frankly embarrassing.

Chris Huhne: On that point, the hon. Gentleman may note that in Sweden, where average January temperatures are 7° C below ours, the average household energy bill is £385 a year less than the average household energy bill in the United Kingdom. That is an extraordinary condemnation of our failure to get to grips with the issue that he raises.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have heard him make that point before. I think that it comes on the back of research that he has done, and it is an extremely powerful statistic. He will be aware of the frustration that is felt about the extraordinary paucity of ambition and energy shown
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1749
by the Government. We have to remind ourselves that back in March 1995 the current Prime Minister announced that the Labour Government would lead a major push for energy efficiency in the home. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) will know, the Association for the Conservation of Energy said to the Environmental Audit Committee that

The background to the Bill is one of failure, and we should recognise that. There has been no shortage of rhetoric from the Government. That rhetoric has its place, particularly on the international stage, but we must get to grips with the fact that there is failure of delivery on the ground. The problem is not a shortage of initiatives. The policy landscape is very full; in fact, it is cluttered, and there is lots of stuff going on, but it is all driven by the proposition that central Government have all the answers. The penny must soon drop, and we must soon realise that the levers that central Government are pulling are not necessarily connected to anything.

As the right hon. Member for Leeds, West suggested, we need to take a different approach. We should realise that if we are to encourage people to change their values and behaviour over economic cycles and across generations, we have to engage them in a bottom-up process, and involves them in their communities. There has been chronic failure to do so, and an opportunity has been missed. Local authorities are closer to their communities and are more trusted than central Government.

The reality is that local authorities are not adequately engaged. They are major stakeholders in the debate. They are huge estate managers; 25 per cent. of the housing stock in this country is social housing, which is their responsibility, directly or indirectly. They are service providers, who must help us to manage waste and enforce building regulations. They are enablers, and play a role through Warm Front and the energy efficiency commitment. They ought to be standing shoulder to shoulder with central Government as partners in that collective effort, but they are not. As the National Audit Office pointed out to the Environmental Audit Committee in a 2007 report:

I am struck by how often we come back to the examples of Woking and Merton in such debates—there are no other names in the frame. However, things are happening out there, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said. I draw particular attention to Kirklees, which is enormously innovative and energetic on such issues. My council, Hillingdon, is one of the 100 authorities that are beginning to deploy some of the principles behind the Merton rule, in their own way. We need more leaders. The Bill is attractive because it sends a strong signal to the market to encourage people to lead, not through imposing targets but by giving local authorities real power. The Bill is therefore a step in the right direction.

25 Jan 2008 : Column 1750
10.37 am

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on bringing forward this eminently sensible and worthy Bill. I hope that the consensus that there has been so far will continue until the Minister’s comments at the end of the debate. The Bill has been described as small; it is indeed brief and concise, and its purpose is to enshrine the Merton rule in primary legislation. That will make an important contribution towards the Government’s 2016 targets on zero-carbon homes.

The Merton rule requires all new non-residential developments of a certain size to generate at least 10 per cent. of their energy on-site from renewable sources. The policy was adopted in October 2003 in Merton’s unitary development plan, and it has since been adopted by a number of other councils—the figure that has been mentioned today is 100. Compliance with the policy is a condition of planning consent. Until the condition is signed off, the development will not be legal. I am delighted to be able to announce to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks and the rest of the House that the excellent London borough of Havering—my forward-thinking, efficient council—has already introduced its own policy, which requires new developments to include a target of at least 20 per cent. of renewable energy in its large non-residential developments. I am grateful to the Local Government Association for sending me a note about that, just in case I had not been aware of it; I was, but had I not been, the note would have been very useful.

One thing that I hope will come out of the debates in Committee is how the effects will be measured and monitored when the policies are adopted by local authorities. Having the target and the policy enshrined in the plans is one thing; ensuring that the policy is working and being achieved is another. We need to be imaginative in looking at developments after they have been built, when they are occupied and in use, to ensure that they are achieving the 20 per cent.—or, in other local authority areas, perhaps 10 per cent.—target. That needs to be a reality, not just an aspiration.

I am sure that all colleagues here will regularly have received letters from constituents who assume that MPs have powers over local planning. One of my constituents wrote me a notable letter saying, “You’re in charge of the local council. Why did you not stop it granting this planning application?” Such constituents are often disappointed to hear that MPs are not involved in planning applications; this Bill, however, is an example of when MPs can indeed influence the planning process. I wish the Bill well; I have not yet heard one comment against it in this debate, so I am optimistic. I do not wish to put any pressure on the Minister, but I give him every encouragement to join the consensus.

Colleagues as ancient as I am—especially those brought up in cities; I was brought up in London, but other cities were probably the same in this regard—will recall the smogs of yesteryear: those extremely unhealthy, thick yellow fogs from the days when solid fuels were the main source of energy. People actually went out in masks, and we all welcomed the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s and 1960s.

25 Jan 2008 : Column 1751

Progress is continually made on energy use and production, and we now encourage individuals not to waste energy; there is an important distinction between using and wasting energy. People are now willing to leave their cars at home and walk if their journey is short, they have no heavy equipment to carry and it is not pouring with rain. People now make choices about when to use their cars, but not so long ago they might have got into their cars automatically, no matter where they were going. That change has meant a reduction in energy consumption.

When people flick the switches in their homes, they expect the light to come on; when they switch on their central heating or gas fires, they expect their homes to become warm. We have to strike a sensible balance between energy use and the general necessities and comforts of life on the one hand, and excessive use and waste on the other. That message is now reaching the general public and there is a great deal of co-operation as people try to reduce their energy use and energy bills; that is particularly pertinent at the moment, because energy costs are rising alarmingly.

The situation may be more difficult for low-income families, who could not consider solar panels or even a new central heating boiler. They might have an old, inefficient boiler but not have the income to replace it. However, there are lots of things that everybody can do without suffering any inconvenience—not leaving electrical equipment on standby and switching off lights when they leave rooms, for example. I and people like me have done such things all our lives; I remember the post-war years when there was a shortage and nobody wasted anything. I no longer save string or brown paper, but I have a lifelong habit of not wasting energy—I do not put more water than is necessary into the kettle, for instance. Such ideas are new to the younger generation, but huge swathes of the population have been aware of them all their lives, and the habits are being reintroduced. Individually, such simple economies do not make a huge difference, but collectively they do.

In encouraging conservation in energy use in large non-residential developments, the Bill will make a significant contribution. Local authorities are looking for all sorts of ways to help the moves towards reducing carbon emissions and making zero-carbon homes. Some local authorities will consider making energy from waste, provided that there is community consent and that the waste being burned is residual and contains nothing that could be recycled. Contaminated plastics, for example, have a high energy content and little other use. However, the process needs to be small in scale so that it does not encourage lots of lorry movements bringing waste from A to B. The burning process needs to be modern, clean and efficient. Local authorities are generally considering every possible way of reducing energy needs and making everything as efficient as possible.

We are setting a good example in this country, which produces comparatively few carbon emissions. In global terms, what we can achieve is probably modest, but in setting a good example to other countries, what we can achieve is important and cannot be underestimated.

John Battle: The hon. Lady has focused on personal contributions. However, does she agree that we must ensure that the new, renewable technologies are developed,
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1752
encouraged and fostered? They are an example of good science: good, practical engineering imagination goes into the new ideas on tackling the challenges. Such technologies mean the provision of the jobs of the future as well as tackling the emissions challenge. They will involve a new set of industries that will provide new jobs for the youngsters of today. We have to be encouraging and get the framework right so that those new technologies and businesses can get going as well.

Angela Watkinson: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; we need to consider such education and training for very young children so that they are focused on the widening job opportunities in engineering, technology and development, which will become ever more modern. We need to keep up with the latest developments and have the imagination to initiate them. That contribution will be extremely important—not only nationally, but internationally.

I urge all Members to support the Bill and I am hopeful that the Minister will join the consensus in this debate. I have carefully considered the Bill and cannot foresee any reason why the Minister would not allow it to proceed to Committee if this Second Reading reaches a positive conclusion.

Next Section Index Home Page