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I find it difficult to envisage the construction of a new home in the United Kingdom in the next 20 years involving zero CO2 emissions, if only because for many years to come it is quite likely that some of those building the home will drive to the site in a car fuelled
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by fossil fuels, not by electricity. They will use electric saws to cut wood, and sometimes electric concrete mixers, and some of the electricity might well come from fossil fuel. We might move to mass renewables. We could move to nuclear, but the building of nuclear power stations involves CO2 emissions. Construction workers might drive to the site in a vehicle powered by electricity from a renewable resource and plug in rotary saws that are powered in the same way. A consideration of zero CO2 emissions during a home’s construction depends on how far one wants to take things towards the absurd. If we are to avoid reaching an absurd situation, the definitions must be clear and we must distinguish between construction and occupation.

On the occupation of houses, should we require those seeking the tax exemption to guarantee that their washing machine will be run only on electricity from renewable resources? How far should we take things when we consider zero CO2 emissions for occupation? I am worried that we will move towards bringing into the equation CO2 offsetting, which is one of the biggest boondoggles around. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) has mentioned in the Chamber—wittily, as usual, but quite rightly—that there is an adultery offset website. Allegedly, the person behind it is a rather spotty youth called Kevin from somewhere like Plymouth. He agrees to remain chaste and not to engage in sexual relations—certainly not adultery—so that someone who signs up to the website can engage in adultery absolutely guilt free because of the adultery offset— [ Laughter. ] That might produce a laugh, but it highlights some of the problems with CO2 offsetting. Although this is being exposed, CO2 offsetting is often a complete con. It is said that Coldplay chose 10,000 trees in somewhere like Indonesia to carbon offset one of their world tours, but that all the trees were dead.

I raise this point regarding the definition of a zero-carbon home under amendment No. 20. Will CO2 offsetting come into the definition on the occupation side of the equation—when someone is living in the house—and when measuring whether the occupation leads to no net use of CO2? We need tight definitions and a clear political direction, preferably with cross-party consensus, to determine exactly what constitutes a so-called zero-carbon home.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. I am aware of his concern about the issue and he is right to ask for clear definitions. However, when carbon offsetting is done properly, sensitively and in sufficient volume, it can genuinely offset the carbon that we use. Would he want to discount it completely from a definition?

Rob Marris: I would not want to discount it completely from a definition, but one would have to be careful about bringing carbon offsetting into the definition of a zero-carbon home. There have been carbon capture and storage projects in Norway for several years and in Saskatchewan, Canada. Most people would regard CCS, when properly carried out, as suitable CO2 offsetting. However, planting trees that then die—either naturally or prematurely—is not really CO2 offsetting. We need to be careful with the definitions. I urge the Exchequer
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Secretary, bearing in mind that she is a Treasury Minister—she is a very able Minister—to try as best she can to give the Committee some clarification, with regard to amendment No. 20, about what a zero-carbon home really is.

5.15 pm

Mr. Redwood: I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). Her amendment makes a lot of sense, and I hope that the Minister will simply concede that. I am sure that the Government intend the tax exemption to be available only on the first sale-and-purchase transaction. The drafting in my hon. Friend’s amendment would ensure that rather more accurately than the drafting in the Bill, so it would make sense to accept it.

Like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I wish to concentrate more on amendment No. 20 and what constitutes a zero-carbon home. I approach the issue from the proposition that it is better to try to change people’s conduct using tax incentives than through tax impositions or compulsion. The principle in the amendment is therefore welcome. It is right that the Government should try to address emissions related to the home environment as well as transport emissions. We well know why that is important: many more of the typical family’s emissions come from the family home. The problem is a difficult one, but it can be addressed using a series of incentives and proposals, of which this would be just one.

I understand my hon. Friend the Member for Putney’s worry that the measure will have a small impact. Part of the reason it will have a small impact is to do with the definition, which lacks clarity about what is a zero-carbon home. There might be a feeling out there in the marketplace that zero-carbon homes are unachievable, and that we should move our targets to what might better be called low-carbon homes as technology develops and the marketplace responds. That is what we do with motor vehicle manufacturing, the regulation of which is tightened progressively over the years, so that each generation of cars is successively better. As a result, exhausts have been cleaned up, and there have been changes regarding the production of fuel to give a certain level of performance. We could have a similar trajectory with housing and the improved performance of our homes, preferably through an incentive scheme.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West rightly said that the zero-carbon home of the Government’s imaginings is not truly zero-carbon because the construction process will entail a certain level of carbon dioxide emission. He could add to his list the emissions of vehicles used on a site to dig the ground and move the earth, as well as any pile-driving and concrete mixing required to provide the foundations and a stable platform on which to build.

Another aspect of all building processes that causes perhaps even more carbon emissions is the manufacture of building materials. Most of the building materials going into a typical British house have been produced using energy-intensive processes. The cement industry is a big energy user, as is the brick industry. That consideration needs to be fashioned into a policy. Although it will be good news for those who wish to cut carbon emissions
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if homes can be constructed that emit few or no carbon emissions, it will not be such good news if the building materials used to achieve that degree of insulation and that carbon-free standard were produced using energy-intensive methods or if they had to be transported quite far. Such homes would take many years to break even on the carbon account.

These issues are difficult. Carbon accounting is a rudimentary science at the moment, and all too many people considering it think that there are silver bullets and easy answers. They think, for example, that stopping people driving would make the problem go away, but it would not. The issue is more complicated than that. All sorts of processes and circumstances involve carbon dioxide emissions, and a sophisticated carbon account is needed before sensible policy conclusions can be reached. I hope that the Minister will produce rather more sophisticated research—perhaps not today but in the months ahead, as this policy develops—so that we can have a better idea of what the true carbon account would be on a so-called zero-carbon home. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide a little more definition today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney requested. If the policy is to have any chance of working, the wider world, interested in building new homes, needs a clearer idea of what is required, and we need a clearer idea of whether it is achievable.

I would regard as a failure a policy under which only 10 homes qualified in more than half a year, and, if I were a Minister, I would regard it as my important duty to tweak and change it until I had a decent number of homes coming forward, so that I could claim that the policy was some kind of success. I put it to the Minister either that it is a problem of persuading the market that what she has in mind can be done—the Government are meant to be good at putting out messages through the media—or that perhaps more work needs to be done on the sort of home that is envisaged, working in conjunction with the industry, so that we can roll out a policy for the hundreds and thousands rather than the one and twos as we seem to have at the moment.

I think that a stamp duty tax break is a very attractive tax break, as stamp duty is very high on the more expensive houses and still a lot of money on the relatively cheap houses because house prices have increased so much. We would expect to have something for the expenditure of tax revenue forgone; we do not seem to be getting it at the moment, so I hope that the Minister will use amendment No. 20 as an opportunity to clarify and improve the definition so that it delivers on the carbon front, taking into account the production of carbon in building the house as well as in subsequently living in it, as well as delivering the number of homes needed to fulfil the targets.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am delighted to return to the subject of stamp duty exemptions on zero-carbon homes, as provided for under clause 90 and the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). I have some interest in the issue, having been fortunate enough to encounter it during the Committee stage of last year’s Finance Bill and, by happy coincidence, when I joined my hon. Friend during the subsequent debate on the statutory instrument in December. Some members of the Committee may also have been present last year and will remember
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that we had great fun in the debate, largely at the expense of the then Economic Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls). However much we teased him and laughed at his ability to tie himself in knots, there was a broad consensus that we wanted the policy to work in practice.

Stamp duty is a considerable expense for anyone trying to get on the housing ladder and last year’s revenues reached some £6.4 billion—a 40 per cent. increase on the previous year. It is quite right for the Government to seek to influence behaviour by reducing some of the burdens of that huge rise in taxation. In that respect, the potential benefits of the policy are wrapped up with how it is perceived by home buyers—and, of course, home builders.

In the same constructive spirit, I welcome the change proposed in clause 19, which will extend the relief to registered flats—something that I asked for when we debated the statutory instrument and the then Economic Secretary gave the Government’s favourite answer: that it would be reviewed. To give credit where it is due—it is right to do that sometimes—it has not only been reviewed but acted upon and duly extended, so I am delighted that once again the Government seem to be listening to the Conservative party; but it is a shame that neither the Economic Secretary nor the Chief Secretary, who I am sure would have been particularly well briefed on the subject, could be here for today’s debate. It is a shame because there is already a sense of discontinuity creeping into the way in which the zero-carbon homes agenda is being dealt with and there is a sense in which the Government’s lofty aspirations are not being matched by the reality of delivery.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Putney has already mentioned, parliamentary questions have done what endless questions in Committee could not: they have elicited the number of zero-carbon certificates that have actually been issued. Unfortunately, it is a very small number indeed—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made that point. Will the Exchequer Secretary update us as to what the latest number is?

That matter worries me less, however, than does the caveat that appears at the end of a couple of parliamentary answers. As the Exchequer Secretary stated in one of them:

I am sure that the number of transactions will rise given that we are starting from a very low base, but it seems that the Government expect some magic exponential effect to occur, and they always seem to expect it to occur soon rather than now.

Last year, the then Economic Secretary proposed the same kind of optimistic but ill-defined acceleration as is now appearing in such parliamentary answers. He said—in the way that only he can—that

However, he also admitted that the pace of the acceleration depended on the definition that was adopted for zero-carbon homes.

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I do not wish to plough the same ground too many times, but the Government have never given satisfactory answers in the repeated questioning over the costing of this measure. There still seems to be a disparity between the £15 million that was set aside for stamp duty rebate and the 200,000 houses that the Government hope will benefit from it by 2016. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney made that point in her excellent speech at the beginning of the debate. Can the Minister confirm the total value of the stamp duty land tax relief for new zero-carbon homes that has so far been claimed, and whether that figure fits in with the projected cost to the taxpayer of £15 million by 2011-12? Moreover, since clause 90 extends eligibility for the relief to flats, may we have an updated costing? It will, presumably, be in excess of £15 million, but by how much? I ask that as there does not appear to be a figure in the Red Book that reflects the extension.

Given the low initial take-up, the ongoing scepticism about the definition, the uncertainty over costing, and the damage that all this does to the public perception of the policy, do the Government propose to undertake a full review of the operation of the policy in its first six months, and will they publish the results? We called for regular such reviews last year, but the only information on progress since then has been provided by sporadic parliamentary questions. The Government’s seemingly boundless optimism cannot compensate for lack of detail on how the policy is working in practice and how it is expected to evolve over time.

I shall now return to the question of the public perception of the zero-carbon standard. The National House-Building Council Foundation has recently published a research paper entitled “Zero carbon: what does it mean for homeowners and housebuilders?” which presents a detailed investigation of public expectation and reaction. The first challenge that the Government face is that only 4 per cent. of those polled had any knowledge of the stamp duty exemption that we are discussing today. The NHBCF also suggests that that is unsurprising, given the very low uptake revealed in parliamentary answers. If the policy is to be a success, awareness and uptake will need to feed off each another, and raising awareness is a huge challenge. Part of the reason for these issues is simple scepticism about what the standards mean, what they will cost to implement and how they will affect homebuyers’ lifestyle choices.

The NHBC Foundation’s chairman, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), stated in the report’s press release:

The report found that home owners tended to view the 2016 zero-carbon aspiration as laudable, but did not believe it to be at all realistic.

5.30 pm

Furthermore, home buyers tend to view energy efficiency in stark economic terms; if it saves them money, they will buy it. For example, nearly half those polled were open to the £700 additional cost of meeting the code level 1 standard, because it generates savings of about
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£50 per annum, but fewer than one in 10 believe that a £400 saving is sufficient return on the £35,000 additional investment needed to meet the code level 6 standard, which reflects a true zero-carbon home. If the cost of qualifying for the zero-carbon stamp duty exemption is an additional £35,000, as the Government estimate, and the maximum stamp duty rebate is £15,000 on a £500,000 property, clearly a significant amount of additional cost must still be met from elsewhere.

Perhaps that gap explains why opinion on the house builders’ side is, if anything, less favourable. Although there is widespread awareness of the code for sustainable homes, the report found that

The construction industry will ultimately determine whether the zero-carbon aspiration is a success or a failure. When confidence in the 2016 target was assessed, only 26 per cent. of house builders polled believed in their technical ability to deliver the standard and just 14 per cent. had confidence in the commercial sense in doing so. The following quote from one builder is indicative of the tone of the study:

That is the background to this issue, and it is the challenge that the Government must meet. The process of meeting that challenge is not helped by the level of uncertainty surrounding both the zero-carbon standard and all the Government’s sums, which are contingent on it. Perhaps that is why the report concluded that many builders wanted to pause for breath at the code level 4 standard, and that they tended to view the huge additional investment required to create a genuine zero-carbon home as impractical and inefficient.

The Government have committed to review the operation of the stamp duty incentive in 2012, which is midway between now and the 2016 deadline for all new homes being zero-carbon. May I draw the Minister on whether the Government will reconsider offering graded reliefs to properties that meet one of the intermediate code levels but are not strictly zero-carbon? Such an incentive structure might help builders to commit to further costly investment in new technology.

The Budget announced new pump-priming funding for a new 2016 delivery unit to guide, monitor and co-ordinate the zero-carbon programme. That is welcome, but will the new unit have within its remit the ability to re-evaluate the operation of the incentive structure? Even more importantly, will the unit act decisively to end the confusion about the zero-carbon standard?

The NHBC Foundation found, rather like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who had his own non-linear, progressive, accelerating build-up to this point, that

That is the focus of today’s debate. I appreciate that the draft Stamp Duty Land Tax (Zero-Carbon Homes Relief) Regulations 2007, which the House approved in December, had been amended to bring them in line with the code for sustainable homes and that issues such as connection
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to gas mains were cleared up. Nevertheless, there is evidently still a degree of confusion within the industry, which is why it is paramount that the Government act quickly.

One house builder in the NHBC Foundation study is quoted as saying:

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