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10.48 am

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak on behalf of the official Opposition in strong favour of this excellent Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). I am pleased that it bears a striking resemblance to an amendment that I tabled to the Climate Change Bill during the last Session. The cause has a good history, not least that of the battle fought by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton). We recognise the efforts on both sides of the House to give statutory standing to the localist agenda at the heart of this new and badly needed legislation.

This has been a very worthwhile and particularly good Friday morning debate. All the contributions from both sides of the House have been extremely positive and insightful, drawing on the great experience of the Members who are here. Many Members support this measure, including the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), the hon. Members for Gower and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who all made worthwhile and forceful contributions to the debate.

The Bill is an excellent piece of workmanlike drafting; it does exactly what it says on the tin. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks for his brevity. In just a page, it could achieve a paradigm shift in the pursuit of climate change policy.

Members need little reminding of the economic and human necessity of acting now to restrict the worst impacts of climate change. The latest report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change states in the strongest language yet that the scientific evidence is now overwhelming. The case for economic action now rather than later is also increasingly clear thanks to the work of Lord Stern. Yet despite the seemingly widespread acceptance of those facts across the House,
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the policies of this Government, while generally heading in the right direction, lack sufficient ambition and urgency and the vision that is needed to meet the scale of the global warming challenge within the time frame that we now know is necessary. The Government’s record on carbon reduction and low-carbon technology deployment here in Britain is disappointing to say the least.

Credit is due to the Government for introducing the Climate Change Bill; we look forward to working constructively with them to toughen it up when it reaches the Commons shortly. However, unless there is a clear layer of policies beneath the Bill to deliver real change in our economy, it will have been a waste of time and risks just becoming an effective way to audit our failures. On its own, it will not deliver the changes that we need to make—the dynamic industrial changes, the changes in consumer behaviour, the changes in Government policy—if we are to rise to the challenge of a low-carbon future.

Despite three consecutive Labour manifesto promises to cut emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010, it is a matter of record that total UK carbon emissions have risen since 1997. If the Government had a record to boast of in this regard, perhaps there would be less passion and less need for my hon. Friend’s Bill, but all the evidence and all our experience show that the drive and impetus for the radical changes that we need to make in the UK are coming from the bottom, not the top. In 2006, emissions fell by just 0.1 per cent., despite the great help from some of the warmest weather on record. In 2006, Labour’s manifesto commitment was quietly dropped in favour of a watered down target of 15 per cent. by 2010.

John Battle: Just for the record, emissions are sometimes the result of warm weather because the greatest use of energy and cause of crises on the grid is usually in the summer when people rush out to buy fans for cooling. Use of energy is not a function of whether the weather is warm or cold. I make that point because there is a great misconception about where the stresses and strains are.

Gregory Barker: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I was referring to mild winters when air conditioning is not typically used, rather than hot summers. Air conditioning, unlike winter energy use, is growing rapidly and is very energy-intensive. We need to tackle that if we are to crack this problem.

In the same year that the manifesto commitment was dropped, the then Chancellor pledged in his Budget £20 million—not a great sum, but welcome nevertheless—to energy efficiency, but only a quarter of those funds made it through into efficiency projects. Last year, the Government cut around £300 million from their DEFRA climate change initiatives, including recycling, energy conservation and emissions reduction programmes. The existing capital grant scheme for microgeneration technologies—the low-carbon buildings programme—has been insufficient from the outset. The grants on offer were so undersupplied that they typically ran out after 30 minutes of being available on the internet on the first day of each month. Since then, the low-carbon
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buildings programme has descended into little more than a farce. In the past 12 months, there have been no fewer than five major changes to the grants programme, including a reduction in the maximum grant per household from a really worthwhile £15,000 to just £2,500.

Then, the new Prime Minister, five months into his premiership, finally made his first foray into the climate change debate. That speech was welcomed in advance, but what was the big idea at the centre of his new climate change strategy? It was a consultation on plastic bags—welcome, but not exactly commensurate with the scale of the challenge of global warming. Do these actions suggest that the Prime Minister is making Britain’s low-carbon future a real priority? Sadly, I do not think so.

That is why, in Britain in the early part of the 21st century, we are now so reliant on local initiatives. There is, in direct contrast to the inertia at the centre of Government, excitement, passion, drive and determination to push some of the most progressive and innovative schemes coming up from the local level. There is real support in our communities, and there are great things going on in our local councils, universities, local organisations and community action groups, with people pushing for genuine change.

Tom Brake: I would like to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to my constituent Russell Smith who set up a company called Parity Projects. Members should be able to see on his website the readings from his own house on heat loss according to the different insulation materials that he has installed. They show the effectiveness of the various measures that he has implemented.

Gregory Barker: That is a terrific plug for a very good and welcome innovation.

Ultimately, if we are honest, all these measures, while making a contribution, will not be enough unless we have dynamic industrial change and real leadership at the centre, but it appears that we are going to have to wait for a change of Government for that. In the interim, the best that we can hope for is that the lead will be given not from the centre but from the community.

John Battle: The hon. Gentleman should be fair. Many of those projects are funded by grant from central Government, including Susan Rolfe’s house in Oxford, which got the first solar panels. Sometimes the spark has been provided by assistance and funding from central Government. It is not the case that there is no support for initiatives, but it is a question of connection and scale.

Gregory Barker: The right hon. Gentleman is right, although grants are not necessarily the best way of supporting innovation and diversity. We believe that feed-in tariffs giving long-term support for microgeneration represent a better way. That is outlined in our pamphlet “Power to the People: the decentralised energy revolution”. However, if we are going to have a grant scheme, we should fund it properly so that there are examplars. As I mentioned earlier, the maximum grant has been cut from £15,000 to £2,500. I wonder how much money the
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excellent project the right hon. Gentleman referred to benefited from, because I would wager that if that was attempted again with the grants that are currently available, it would struggle to put together the finances.

John Battle: I am looking forward to reading the hon. Gentleman’s pamphlet, because I hope his proposals stretch right across the piece and do not look at the Warm Front budget alone. I was a Science Minister, and I suggest the hon. Gentleman look at the science budget, including for the research councils. Where does he think the funding for many of the new science and technology developments came from? It came from Government to the science research councils and then through to universities, technology colleges and institutes. This issue must be looked at in the round, because more is happening than the hon. Gentleman might be prepared to acknowledge.

Gregory Barker: That is absolutely right, and I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s considerable experience in, and knowledge of, this sector. Our universities and research centres are among the best in the world, and it is only fair to say that there has been an increase in funding, which is to the Government’s credit. However, I cannot think of one other G8 country that spends a lower proportion of its GDP on research and development than Great Britain. The general direction of travel under this Government, who lauded their support for science and research and development when in opposition, is downwards almost year on year. That is very unfortunate. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have extraordinary creative genius in this country and some of the most talented individuals, and I believe that the solutions to many of the greatest challenges we face are locked in our universities. They can play a huge role in allowing this country to facilitate those solutions not only by leading by example, but by sharing information, solutions and technology. Unfortunately however, under this Government we are not realising our potential. We have huge potential. We see it, but, sadly, the Government are not unlocking or exploiting it.

John Battle: It is important that we get the facts right. The Financial Times publishes investment in research and development and it shows that our Government invest more than other Governments across Europe—and including America now. The failure is in the private sector, where businesses and other concerns do not put enough of their own profits back into research. That is the gap that we need to address. It is not fair simply to say that the Government do not invest as much in research and development as other countries. We must look at where investment comes from, and that is a complex issue.

Gregory Barker: The Government are pretty quick to claim credit for private sector investment when that goes up, and to claim the credit for growth in the economy; all that growth comes from the private sector. The Government have a responsibility to create an environment in which companies come forward to invest in research and development and to put in place a long-term framework. On any count, it is clear that
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the Government have failed to do that. That is simply because there is not the vision, the ambition or the determination to create the innovative, skills-based economy with a long-term direction that we desperately need. That is one reason why good local initiatives are so badly needed, and why the Bill deserves our full support.

When, in 2003, Merton council took the bold step of setting a 10 per cent. target for on-site renewable generation, it helped to spark an unprecedented investment in the microgen sector. Investors felt that frameworks such as Merton could provide a long-term marketplace for the developers and manufacturers of small-scale, low-carbon technologies.

On the path towards the zero-carbon homes target in 2016, there are stepped increases in minimum standards for public sector housing projects. In 2013, the standards jump to a 44 per cent. efficiency improvement on today’s standards—or level 4 in the code for sustainable homes. That is ambitious. There is concern in the microgen sector, voiced by industry groups such as the Micropower Council, that this large increase could result in a huge increase in demand for microgeneration in a short period of time, and that unless careful thought and preparation goes into anticipating that, the industry will struggle to meet it. That is because previous minimum standards could be met through energy efficiency measures alone, whereas it believes that the 44 per cent. standard could not, which would demand that that standard is met by on-site renewables in almost all cases. Many of the manufacturers argue that at its current level the microgeneration sector could not supply that demand, and that that failure would seriously upset the 2016 zero-carbon homes target.

Merton rules provide the longer term security for continued and sustained investment in the microgeneration sector and will allow it to match demand as standards are ratcheted up. We need that sustained growth in microgeneration. The Government’s response to the Merton rule has been typically shambolic and dithering. In a written statement to the House in June of last year, the then Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), endorsed the rule, in what many thought was a welcome move. She said:

Those were sound words.

The statement encouraged yet more councils up and down the country to set such rules according to their local needs—dealing with on-site renewables and energy efficiency in residential and commercial properties as appropriate. Although it is still early for these schemes to be judged, the early adopters, such as Merton and Croydon, have met with considerable success, and, with no significant impact on building rates in those areas, the rules provided a lifeline to the renewables industry and began to lower the shamefully high emissions of our property stock.

Yet, sadly, following intense lobbying from the house building sector—uneasy with change and keen to preserve its one-size-fits-all production methods—the Minister, wielding the empty threat of a slowdown in the housing market, performed a dramatic U-turn on
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her statement. On Tuesday 23 August, a leaked document from the Department for Communities and Local Government argued:

That clumsy U-turn did untold damage to the microgen sector, set a hare running in the press and created uncertainty, which is bad for investment and confidence, and it was broadly condemned by environmental non-governmental organisations, trade associations and environmental campaigners, as well as by many authoritative commentators.

Therefore, when Ministers assure us that the change of heart in December’s planning policy statement now supports Merton-style rules, how can we believe them? Can the innovative talents in the microgen sector now go to their investors with a straight face and say, “Don’t worry; the U-turn’s been U-turned and we’ve now got a new turn”?

The Bill is important precisely because of this culture of uncertainty and dither that lies at the very heart of the Government. The Bill will replace dither with clear statute. Short, pithy and to the point, it will give certainty. As has been said, it is a permissive Bill; it will give new rights, not impose regulations. It will enshrine the rights of local councils to make their own proposals for renewable targets within reasonable limits in law. It will prevent the unseen hand of Whitehall choking off local initiatives. There was a brazen example of that earlier last year, when the Yorkshire and Humber development plan was scrutinised by the former Minister. Its on-site renewable target mysteriously disappeared.

The Bill would protect in law the right of local councils to set targets while ensuring that they are reached through the public process of consultation on a development plan. I am sure that the Minister will claim that the planning policy statement in soon-to-be published guidance will give all councils guidelines on making the targets. How is a centralised diktat better at meeting local targets than local planning officers acting in consultation with local property owners and developers, local people and communities and locally elected councillors?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright) rose—

Gregory Barker: I would be delighted to hear from the Minister.

Mr. Wright: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech extremely closely. Will he inform the House precisely where in the planning policy statement it ensures that there is a central diktat?

Gregory Barker: That is what a planning policy statement is—it is a diktat that comes from central Government on high. Planning guidance has the weight of law, but it is not debated and it is not accountable in the same way.

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Let us consider the example of inner-city areas, and, in particular, high-rise developments, where it is harder to place renewables on site. In such circumstances, near-site renewables or dedicated generation may be a better solution. The exact definition of an acceptable near-site renewable could be decided on, as appropriate, within each local authority’s development plan. We should trust local communities to get the solution that is right for their area. The Government’s approach is typical of their one-size-fits-all, centrally-controlling mentality. Who is to say that the next planning policy statement will not flip-flop back against the rules, promoting again the Government’s centralised targets-setting policy, which raises only the floor and leaves no opportunity to raise the ceiling?

The Bill may stipulate energy efficiency in the mix too. It is incredibly important that while building standards drive up the underachieving councils, councils with the vision to see the benefits and leadership involved in moving ahead, and with the support of their communities to do so, are given the ability to drive progress in their area and create beacons of excellence.

Mr. Caton: One of the problems with relying solely on building standards to improve energy efficiency is that even our existing building standards, which do not set high enough targets as yet, are not being enforced. Many of those present in the Chamber are either members or former members of the Environmental Audit Committee. It has taken evidence that showed that more than 30 per cent. of new houses are built below existing building regulations standards. Planning can thus help to fill that gap.

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman is spot on. I think I am right in saying that there has not been a single prosecution for breaches of those standards—perhaps the Minister could inform us of any such prosecution. The standards might be a good idea in Whitehall, but they are not being implemented in the country. It would be far better to give local communities local ownership of, and input in, these matters.

Mr. Wright: I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) and the hon. Gentleman. Would the hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming the clauses in the Housing and Regeneration Bill that extend the time limits for prosecutions of building regulations breaches from six months to two years? They will enable us to capture a lot more breaches and many more prosecutions will take place.

Gregory Barker: That Bill will not capture a lot more, because we are not currently capturing any at all. If it catches one, that will be an improvement. I do not want the time limit for prosecutions to go from six months to two years—I want the Government to get on with the job and start prosecuting shoddy cowboy builders and irresponsible developers. I want them to enforce the existing legislation, rather than seek longer time to do the job that the Minister and the rest of this inefficient and calamitous Government are failing to do now.

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