Orders of the Day — Energy Conservation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th December 1974.

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Photo of Mr Peter Hordern Mr Peter Hordern , Horsham and Crawley 12:00 am, 5th December 1974

I am glad to have the opportunity to debate energy conservation. I hope that the Minister will set out the Government's proposals on energy conservation and will disregard altogether the rumours that have been put about in the Press that their pronouncement on some of the proposals may be delayed until next week.

There can be no doubt about the importance or the urgency of a comprehensive policy to conserve energy. After all, the Government have been in office for 10 months, and that is surely more than enough time to present a set of proposals to deal with so vital a problem, which is part of our most intractable problem today—the oil crisis, which arose exactly a year ago. The fact that we are now running a balance of payments deficit of about £3,500 million a year, of which the oil part represents about £2,000 million, is bad enough, but what makes the position so much worse is that if we and the other consumer countries continue to use as much energy as we did a year ago we shall be completely in the hands of the producer countries.

I understand that the non-Communist world now consumes 47 million barrels of oil a day, of which the OPEC countries supply 32 million barrels. If the consumer countries together were able to achieve a reduction of about 20 per cent. in their demand for oil it could mean a reduction of 30 per cent. from the OPEC countries and the end of their all-powerful position. We shall not easily see a reduction of 20 per cent., but I think we could see a reduction of about 10 per cent., which would make a substantial difference.

I understand that industry in West Germany is using 18 per cent. less fuel than a year ago and that Holland's consumption of fuel has fallen by as much as 32 per cent. The French are making the most strenuous efforts to reduce consumption, and the United States aims to be self-supporting in fuel within a measure-able period. Dr. Kissinger's proposal is for a 10 per cent. reduction in oil imports by the end of next year.

I think that the Government accept this; indeed, I think that one Minister has quantified what the savings would be if we were to achieve a 10 per cent. reduction. He estimates that it would be about £600 million a year, which is equal to the whole of our annual investment in electricity.

What are the Government themselves doing to achieve this reduction? So far as one can tell, the only measures that have been taken are to allow industrial companies completely to write off against corporation tax expenditure on insulating factories. That is very helpful as far as it goes, but why is there no similar provision for industrial and commercial companies in respect of office accommodation? How can it be less desirable to carry out proper insulation for offices than for factories? There can surely be no division of view about this. If it is of absolute importance to conserve energy by insulation, there can be no artificial division or distinction between offices and factories. I hope that the Minister in replying will not tell us about the difficulties that the Inland Revenue may have in classification, because those difficulties are there to be overcome.

How else do the Government propose to conserve energy? I think that the proposal to allow the nationalised industries to charge more realistic prices is certainly a move in the right direction. I understand that in West Germany the increase in the cost of oil has been passed straight on to the consumer and that this has already had an appreciable effect on consumption.

I do not think it would be possible for us to move at once to this proposition because the nationalised industries have been subsidised for so long, but I think that we can move towards it by sensible and rational means. It should be possible for every consumer, industrial, commercial and domestic, to use up to 90 per cent. of his previous intake of fuel a year ago at the same rate, but to be charged an increasing surcharge on consumption above that level.

What is necessary now is to bring home to every consumer the absolute necessity to conserve fuel. What we should move away from is the position in which large discounts are given by nationalised industries for increasing quantities of fuel consumed. The opposite should be the case. What else are the Government doing to encourage us to use less fuel? They have set up a committee. That is a reflex action of every Government to any difficult problem. Sir William Hawthorne's Committee was set up in the summer but did not meet until October. I understand that the Government are about to announce some proposals. There could certainly be no more fitting time than in this debate, and I am sure that the Minister has come armed with all these proposals, which will be well reported and well received.

The latest information about consumption is not at all encouraging. Actual energy consumption was 1 per cent. higher this September than it was in September a year ago, although I understand that the fact that this September was much colder than a year ago makes a substantial difference. But petrol consumption is only 2 per cent. down on a year ago, and deliveries of heating oil are well up to the levels of last September. This situation cannot continue.

We are entitled to know what the Government propose. Oil prices rose dramatically a year ago. The Government have had responsibility for 10 months and they have done virtually nothing. Let me contrast their inaction with what the French did in September. First, they placed a limit of 51 million francs on the French oil imports in 1975. This represents the tonnage imported in 1973, reduced by 10 per cent., calculated at present oil prices. It means that if prices rise, as they may well do in a few months, French imports next year will have physically to be reduced.

At the same time the French announced a massive increase in their nuclear power programme and their run-down of the coal industry was first halted and then reversed. To save energy the French have limited heating in offices, shops and homes to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. I do not know how effective this measure will be, but at the least every Frenchman is physically aware of the acute energy position.

The same cannot be said of our people, nor I suspect of Government offices, nor even of our own homes. I do not know about you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but walking towards the Tea Room for a coffee I find that it is most comfortable and I am not inconvenienced by the temperature of this place. It would cause us no great difficulty if we were somewhat more inconvenienced and the temperature were reduced a little.

The great majority of people can scarcely be aware that there is an energy crisis. They see shops and offices ablaze with light and advertising signs flickering every night. How can they be expected to take the situation seriously? The fault is entirely that of the Government, and they must take action soon if we are to achieve worthwhile savings of energy.

The steps that need to be taken should be constructive, rational and effective if they are to gain the support of the country, without which they will not succeed. Perhaps I can suggest two areas for action which would have an effect soon. The first concerns transport. While it consumes only 14 per cent. of our total energy, it nevertheless consumes 25 per cent of our oil. The Central Policy Review Staff said that if our motorway speed limit were reduced from 70 miles an hour to 50 miles an hour there would be a saving in petrol of about 25 per cent. The Central Policy Review Staff called this a Draconian measure. If the limit were reduced to 60 miles an hour everywhere else, or even 50 miles an hour on some minor roads, this too would result in a great saving. This is something that the Government should consider.

Would not it be worth while also to consider abolishing altogether the road tax licence, which must be administratively very expensive, I understand that it would save about £12 million if the staff and the administration on the road tax licence were abolished altogether. I do not know what would be the compensating effect of the increase in the price of petrol which would have to be incurred instead. Perhaps the Minister can supply some information for us. I do not know what the effect would be, but this is something which I hope the Minister will be able to tell us.

In 1857 a Committee of this House produced a report entitled "Warming and Ventilation of Dwellings", which recommended the double-glazing of windows. We do not seem to have made very much progress since the House reported on this so many years ago. We use about 34 per cent. of our total energy in our homes, and a considerable part escapes at once through roofs, walls and windows.

I believe that we have the worst record in insulation of our homes of any country in Europe, with the possible exception of Spain, which has a much more enviable climate, anyway. Clearly, the scope for saving energy lies far more in insulating our homes than in any other way.

Apart from the waste of energy in resource terms, I understand that if all buildings constructed during the course of one year had been built and insulated to continental standards, the extra costs of construction would have added another £8 million but the fuels bills would have been reduced, on an annual basis, by some £2 million every year. As we use 34 per cent. of all our energy in our homes, the scope for saving here must be very considerable.

There is a further consideration. So much of our national stock of houses was built before the war, a great deal of it in the last century. It is in these homes that there is such inadequate insulation. The cost of repairs and maintenance, falling as it does on local councils, must be enormous, and it must make sense, therefore, to encourage councils and private landlords and householders to instal proper and effective insulation.

In an admirable speech on 19th November, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) drew attention to the deplorable standards of insulation in our houses. He said that we were wasting energy at the rate of £2,000 million a year and that we were building houses, even now, to the worst standard of thermal insulation of any country in Western Europe.

We cannot accept that the improvement grants under the Housing Act 1974 are adequate to the challenge that we have to meet. Grants specifically for insulation are available in both France and Western Germany, and this is one method which must be considered here. After so many years of inadequate building standards, it is high time that we put our house in order, quite literally, instead of allowing scarce energy to be squandered. It calls for a major revision of building standards by the Department of the Environment and by architects throughout the country.

So much else also needs to be done. The waste of power from power stations, from steel works and from transport is simply alarming. They all operate as if we were in a time of cheap and abundant energy. All these processes call for the most urgent attention from our scientific advisers.

Above all, the country needs an effective lead from the Government and firm proposals to deal with this pressing problem. Let these proposals come soon, before another week goes by.