House Condition Survey (Energy Reports)

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 22nd January 1997.

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak 12:30 pm, 22nd January 1997

Last week the Birmingham Evening Mail published a letter from Mr. Thornton of Weoley Castle, who is a war veteran in his seventies. He stated: At the time of writing, the temperature in the kitchen is 42 deg F"— that is about 5.5 deg C— and in the bedroom it is 34 deg F"— about 1 deg C above freezing.

As the Minister knows, such conditions do not meet even the minimum Government standards for safeguarding health. Sadly, Mr. Thornton's conditions are not an isolated case, as is amply demonstrated by the house condition survey report. I commend the Government for commissioning the detailed work in that hefty document. It has been a long time coming—the survey took place in 1991–92. Although the report states that there has been little change in the situation since then, a new survey is to be undertaken.

It has taken several years for the report to be published. Its publication was originally planned for the summer. I do not know why it was not ready then; the Government were probably aiming for it to be published in the recess. In the event, it was published two days after the Budget and, unfortunately, received little publicity. No one seems to have seen the Department of the Environment press release on the subject. I am pleased that this Adjournment debate allows me to give the Government the opportunity to discuss such an important report.

In 1983, the Conservatives promised to make Britain the best housed nation in Europe. The contents of the survey show how badly they have failed in that aim. The report is an indictment of almost 20 years of Conservative government. It shows that one in five dwellings in the social housing sector, two in five in the private rented sector, and even one in 10 in the owner-occupied sector have energy ratings that show them to be grossly inefficient. On the Government's standard assessment procedure scale, which goes from one to 100—100 being the most energy efficient—those are the proportions of types of homes that are less than 20 per cent. energy efficient. Although I gave the proportion of only one in 10 homes in the owner-occupied sector, that represents 1.3 million dwellings, which is the largest number of dwellings in any sector that are grossly inefficient.

The report states that when the temperature is 4 deg C, which is above the temperature that triggers cold weather payments to people on low incomes, 50 per cent. of owner-occupied housing, 62 per cent. of council and social housing in the housing association sector and 95 per cent. of private rented housing fails to achieve even the minimum standards to safeguard health as laid down by the Government. More than one in three households would need to spend more than 10 per cent. of their income on fuel to achieve the more comfortable standard heating regime. By that standard, more than 60 per cent. of lone pensioners underspend on heating. No wonder in the first two weeks of this year the Government's Office for National Statistics reported 10,000 excess deaths. Mr. Thornton is, indeed, not an isolated case.

The report states that, despite the mild weather in 1991–92, only 25 per cent. of the homes surveyed fully met the standard regime for temperature, and only 70 per cent. conformed with the minimum regime. It is reckoned that, to achieve the 30 per cent. energy efficiency savings laid down in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, expenditure of £80 billion will be required. The Government have accepted that target.

The Department of the Environment circular on the 1995 Act issued in early 1996 states that the Secretary of State takes the view that improving the energy efficiency of residential accommodation is important because of the environmental impact of energy use in the domestic sector—estimated to be responsible for more than 25 per cent. of emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide—and because of the desirability of ensuring that every household has access to affordable warmth. I am sure that all hon. Members support that aim, but the report shows how far we are from achieving it.

The guidance notes go on to say that the Secretary of State takes the view that an overall improvement in energy efficiency of 30 per cent. in residential accommodation covered by the Act in England alone is to be regarded as significant, and gives advice accordingly.

The report states that £25 billion to £80 billion is needed to meet that target. It also states that one in five homes cannot be improved to current building regulation standards, and recommends that they should be replaced with new homes. That would mean a massive increase in the house-building programme, in line with the building programme that occurred after the war.

I am sure that the Minister will say that the report tells us that most households are satisfied with their heating systems—only 13 per cent. are not. It is difficult to square that with the objective findings that show the appalling state of our housing stock in terms of energy efficiency.

In case study 4, which deals with a family of owner-occupiers who bought their low-rise flat from the local authority, the family stated in the questionnaire that they were fairly satisfied with their heating system, which was a rather old central heating system. The report notes, however, that at the start of the interview the family voluntarily identified heating as something that they were unhappy about. There seems to be a problem with the collection of the statistics. Nevertheless, I congratulate the Government on the report, which shows how much work needs to be done to bring our housing stock up to scratch.

What have the Government done to bring about such a sorry state of affairs? When I first became involved in politics as a councillor in Birmingham, we had a housing investment programme of £75 million a year. I have checked with Birmingham council, and the housing investment programme allocation for next year is £28 million. One must take into account the difference in prices between the 1979–80 figure of £75 million and the 1997 figure of £28 million, which demonstrates the enormous reduction in investment not just in the council housing sector but in housing associations.

In its 1992 election manifesto, the Conservative party claimed that it was spending £2 billion a year on the housing association sector. That expenditure was reduced to about £650 million in this year's Budget—a massive cut that exemplifies the Government's failure to honour their pledge to the country in 1992. It is just another in a series of broken Tory promises.

Reduced investment leads to all sorts of misery. I know from my surgeries the appalling conditions in which many of my constituents are living. Only 5 per cent. of council-owned stock in Birmingham has energy ratings that meet current building regulation standards of 70 per cent. energy efficiency. Some 15,000 homes are below the national average of 35 per cent. energy efficiency—which is itself too low and needs attention. It is reckoned that it will cost £1.3 billion to raise council housing in Birmingham to modern standards—and, as I have said, the council's housing investment allocation this year is only £28 million. That illustrates the Government's sorry record in this area, particularly their failure to honour their manifesto commitments.

The Government's energy efficiency programme also comprises the home energy efficiency scheme. The Chancellor increased spending on the scheme to £100 million in his 1994 Budget Statement—a mere drop in the ocean in view of the scale of the problem. However, the Government could not maintain even that level of spending and, despite promises from the Chancellor and two other Ministers to maintain it for three years, in November 1995 it was cut to £75 million. That caused many redundancies in firms operating home energy efficiency programmes. Expenditure has not increased this year, and remains at £75 million. We should contrast that figure with the £60 million in assistance provided to those on low incomes through the cold weather payments scheme.

We must invest in our housing stock. There are many ways to do it, but the Government are failing in that task. Although £80 billion sounds like a lot of money, the same sort of sum was spent on Trident. We cannot bring that money back, but it would be good if, as we approach the 21st century, the Government—hopefully, there will be a new Government after the election—would give a commitment to tackle the problem and make Britain the best housed nation in Europe. It is not an insuperable problem: it could be done. The Government recently announced their intention to spend £15 billion on the Eurofighter aircraft. Those aircraft were conceived during the cold war and are now unnecessary. That money could be used to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock, which would have a favourable impact on global warming and do more to ensure global stability than military spending of that nature. Perhaps that funding could be targeted.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has committed the next Labour Government—who I am sure will soon be in office—to a programme of energy efficiency funded by the windfall levy on public utilities. It is most appropriate to spend the excess profits of the gas and electricity industries on a programme to improve energy efficiency, reduce fuel consumption and make people more comfortable.

The debate gives the Government an opportunity to announce their plans for the future. They have failed to tackle the housing problem in their 18 years in office—I wonder what commitments they will make in their next manifesto. The Government must pull their socks up if they are to perform at a level anything like that needed to make Britain the best housed country in Europe—an aim that we must all share as we approach the millennium.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:44 pm, 22nd January 1997

I welcome this opportunity to debate the important subject of home energy efficiency. It will probably be no surprise to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) to learn that I do not agree with the conclusions that she has drawn from our report. I do not believe that any objective interpretation of that report supports her conclusions. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to debate its important findings.

In the words of the hon. Lady, this is a very hefty report. It is the most comprehensive and detailed review of the energy efficiency of the housing stock yet published, and it represents a very careful analysis by the Building Research Establishment of a formidable body of survey data. As the hon. Lady said, we published the report in November last year. I assure her that there was no delay in releasing the information, and results were published as they became available. Early findings were published in the main report of the English house condition survey 1993 and further results were published in 1995 in the Department of the Environment's guide on energy efficiency in council housing.

The hon. Lady selected some figures from the report and placed her own interpretation on them. I do not deny that some households have faced difficulties, especially during the extremely cold weather that we have experienced in the past few weeks, but her selective use of the report's evidence fails to do justice to the subject and does not put the figures into proper perspective.

The starting point for the debate should be the fact that this country's housing stock is relatively old. That brings some advantages: many people value the style, space and arrangement of older houses, but they were constructed when fuel was cheap and when the technology of energy conservation was not well developed. The price we pay is a housing stock that is energy inefficient but which can be—and, crucially, is being—improved. Although the houses are technically inefficient, the survey shows clearly that the great majority of households—some 87 per cent.—are satisfied with their heating. Although we know that elderly householders face particular difficulties, the survey shows that more than 90 per cent. of householders over 60 years of age are satisfied with their heating.

I am especially encouraged by the fact that the figures have improved continually. A similar survey carried out in 1986 found that only 80 per cent. of householders were satisfied with their heating. That is some measure of the improvements that have been made since then. Successive reports of the English house condition survey have shown that great strides have been made in home heating standards in recent years. In 1971, only one in three homes had central heating. By 1991, the proportion of homes with central heating had risen to more than four in five and ownership of homes with central heating continues to grow.

Moreover, in 1971, nearly one in four households still heated their homes with coal fires. By 1991, that proportion had dropped to fewer than one in 15. Nearly 80 per cent. of households now enjoy the convenience and increased efficiency of gas-fired heating. Similarly, the standard of insulation has improved dramatically in the past 20 years. The number of homes with insulated lofts has more than doubled from 42 per cent. to 90 per cent. The percentage with insulated cavity walls has increased tenfold in the same period and the proportion of homes with double-glazed windows has increased sevenfold.

Most households have derived the benefits of those improvements in increased comfort and, as a result of those improvements and the increasing use of domestic appliances, energy consumption has remained at broadly the same level. Without those improvements in insulation and in the efficiency of heating and other appliances, it is estimated that fuel consumption could have risen by 50 per cent. The switch from coal to gas has produced a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and made a contribution to the substantial progress that we have achieved in meeting our climate change commitments under the climate change convention.

Our homes are generally much warmer than they were 20 years ago. That has direct benefits in comfort and health. Although housing conditions are not the sole cause of excess winter deaths, the fact remains that the number of such deaths has halved since the early 1970s. It is not unreasonable to assume that that is in part a reflection of improvements in the way in which homes are heated. Nevertheless, we recognise that while homes remain energy inefficient, some households will continue to face particular difficulties. That is why cold weather payments are made available to those who are most vulnerable in periods of cold weather. So far this winter, more than 5 million payments have been made, totalling £43 million.

We fully accept, as the report shows, that there remains a good deal to be done. The Government are pledged further to improve energy efficiency as part of our commitment to sustainable developments and to containing United Kingdom carbon dioxide emissions, taking into account resource and economic considerations.

The domestic sector is responsible for nearly 30 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions. We have taken many initiatives to improve the energy efficiency of domestic dwellings. With the aim of increasing the energy efficiency of new housing and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the Government amended part L of the building regulations dealing with the conservation of fuel and power in 1990, and again in 1994. The 1994 amendment extended the provision for energy conservation to the conversion of existing buildings. New homes are now highly energy efficient.

As the energy report shows, however, there are many vulnerable households living in older property that find it difficult to heat their homes adequately. The largest single programme in the Government's energy efficiency programme is targeted on those households. The home energy efficiency scheme provides grants for basic home insulation and advice for householders who receive an income-related benefit, a disability allowance or who are aged 60 or over. The budget is about £73 million in 1996ߝ97, equivalent to about 400,000 grants.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Will the Minister explain why the Government did not honour their commitment to spend £100 million for three years after 1994–95?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As the hon. Lady may know, that is linked to changes in the application of value added tax on domestic fuel. We have maintained our commitment to a substantial programme to help the households that I have described with home energy efficiency. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that we have recently announced a 3 per cent. increase in the budget for 1997–98, to take spending up to £75 million.

The scheme is popular and well regarded, and has already helped more than 2 million households—10 per cent. of the stock—since it was set up in its present form in 1991. That represents 2 million low-income and disabled households which have been able significantly to increase their comfort levels and keep themselves warm. The environmental benefits of the scheme are, rightly, secondary to its social benefits. Even so, they are not negligible, as the measures are long lasting and will, over time, contribute significantly to reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for energy efficiency recently announced significant changes to the home energy efficiency scheme to make it even better. From later this year we shall be introducing new measures, such as cavity wall insulation and heating control upgrades, in addition to the basic measures of loft insulation, draught proofing and pipe and tank lagging.

Home energy efficiency schemes will continue to provide a high-quality programme of improvements to the housing stock. In recent years, the scheme has been supported by other programmes of improvements, especially those promoted by the Energy Saving Trust in partnership with the electricity regulator and the regional electricity companies under the general title of standards of performance. We have recently announced further Government support for the Energy Saving Trust. About £71.5 million will be available to the trust from 1996 to the year 2000 to promote the efficient use of energy, an increase of £21.5 million on previous public expenditure plans for the years 1996 to 1999.

The Government have fully recognised the role that local authorities can play. Under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which came into force in England in April 1996, local authorities are required to prepare and publish reports on the energy efficiency of all the residential accommodation in their areas. The reports must identify practical and cost-effective measures that will significantly improve the energy efficiency of those dwellings.

The Government have played a full part in ensuring that the aims represented by the Act can be achieved. We have issued guidance, prepared with the full co-operation of local authority associations and other bodies with an interest in energy efficiency, which has stipulated that a "significant improvement" will not be less than 30 per cent. Detailed assistance with the preparation of the report has been provided, including free software to help authorities to assess the housing stock in their areas.

As a further part of the framework supporting implementation of the Act, revised guidance to local authorities on developing and implementing effective energy efficiency strategies for all housing in their areas is in preparation. This will update and supersede the well received guidance that the Department first issued in 1993 on energy efficiency in council housing.

The result of the Home Energy Conservation Act will be a 10 to 15-year programme to bring about a comprehensive improvement to the housing stock. For the first time, statutory authorities have been given a duty to take energy efficiency seriously, and we have made it clear that we expect to see results.

The Act extends local authorities' sphere of influence into the private sector. It recognises the unique position of local authorities to bring a strategic oversight to energy issues. The great majority of homes are in private ownership, and that means that the responsibility for taking necessary action must rest with owner-occupiers and landlords. Local authorities, however, are well placed to encourage that action through information, advice, education and publicity, and the Act lays great emphasis on that. It also provides an opportunity for partnerships with a wide range of other agencies.

In addition to the activities to which I have referred, through the Home Energy Conservation Act, energy efficiency has also been achieved through the new estates renewal challenge fund competition. A total of £174 million was allocated in June 1996 under the first round of the scheme to 11 authorities to facilitate transfers of poor quality local authority housing to registered social landlords. Estates renewal challenge fund money is going towards essential improvements to the stock, which are necessary in many instances to bring homes up to modern standards and to make a transfer viable.

A number of round 1 schemes include measures such as new double glazing, roof insulation and insulation through the cladding of tower blocks. These and other such improvements will greatly improve the energy efficiency of the homes concerned. That will in turn improve the living standards of tenants, save them money in meeting heating bills and assist in making the estates attractive investments for the private sector. These are part of the wide range of activities that we are undertaking. There is also the work that we are doing through private sector renewals and the home improvements agencies, all of which is bearing fruit.

I hope that I have set out the positive measures that we are taking to improve existing stock. As I said at the outset, the starting point for the debate is the fact that much of our housing is relatively elderly.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady's arguments. By implication—I noted this in passing—there was a strong and pronounced plea from the hon. Lady for additional public spending, including public spending on house building. She referred to the targets that have been set by the shadow Chancellor, but she knows that the activities that are to be funded through moneys raised through the windfall tax do not extend to house building.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall not give way again.

The hon. Lady should know that we are meeting our target on social housing. It seems that she is making a plea for considerable increases in public spending in that area, as well as a diversion of expenditure from defence. It is not clear whether she wants a diversion of public expenditure or additional expenditure. The hon. Lady is nodding, which leads me to think that she is in favour of additional public expenditure. These are matters of interest. She made the charge that we have not spent sufficiently on social housing. She will know that we have set a target of 60,000 social housing properties below market rent, and we are achieving that without the additional spending and building that she seems to favour, which was a very pronounced feature of her speech. I hope that that fact will not be lost.

We have already achieved a great deal through a range of programmes and public spending and are bringing about a pattern of improvement that is—

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

I hope that it is a matter for the Chair.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak

The Minister is attempting to prevent me from making a contribution and from responding—

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. The hon. Lady knows that that has absolutely nothing to do with the Chair.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have given way to the hon. Lady once already.

I conclude by saying that we have done a great deal, and the objective interpretation of the report is one of improvements—

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. We must now move to the next debate.