January 25, 2008
Nick Hurd supports a Private Members’ Bill which enables local planning authorities to set requirements for energy generation and energy efficiency in local plans.
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 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 do 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 out 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.
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 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 energy efficiency industry as a whole…is extremely disappointed by the painfully slow progress towards introducing new economic instruments to improve household energy efficiency. Frankly, we are beginning to wonder whether it will ever happen”.
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,
“Although over 200 local authorities have made high level commitments to climate change…analysis suggests a mixed picture of performance, with few replicating the achievements of the best.”
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.