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Cost of Living: Energy and Housing

Part of Bills Presented — Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:17 pm on 5th June 2014.

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Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove 4:17 pm, 5th June 2014

I greatly welcome the Queen’s Speech and the provisions set out in it. Having served on the Modern Slavery Joint Committee with Members of the House of Lords, I particularly welcome the Modern Slavery Bill. There is a long list of things I could welcome, but I want to focus on energy and housing as they are the topics for today. However, in passing I think I need to reply a little to Julie Hilling, who spoke of the particular pressures that women, and perhaps women care workers, were under, by pointing out to her that 3 million people have been taken out of income tax by the raising of the tax threshold and that a large majority of them are women in low-paid jobs. I hope she will give us some credit for some of the good things we are doing.

Energy and housing are closely linked, because 27% of the carbon dioxide that is emitted in this country is produced from our housing stock. The link between energy, climate change and housing is very close indeed, therefore. I have long posed this question to those who give advice to Government and others: “If you’ve got £100 million to spend, what is the cheapest way of reducing carbon by the greatest amount?” The answer every time is to tackle housing. That is cheaper than paying for new generating equipment and cheaper than policies to cut carbon for transport, and it is certainly a longer-term solution than any gimcrack price fixing of energy policy.

I am delighted that we have doubled the amount of renewable energy which is contributing to electrical generation since 2010. I welcome our approach to generating energy, and I particularly welcome what we are doing to control energy and improve efficiency in housing. That has been a long-term interest of mine, and I steered on to the statute book the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004. I was very pleased that this coalition Government adopted the green deal, too. As a Minister I had the opportunity to sign through the first step forward in energy-efficiency for housing in October 2010, and I am pleased to see that there is going to be delivery on zero-carbon homes by 2016. The announcement is somewhat overdue. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is in his place and knows my views about that. It nearly happened in 2012 and again in 2013, but it has happened in 2014: we have a clear announcement about the commissioning of allowable solutions, and we can now get the industry making the preparations it needs, building the confidence to invest that it needs and making sure that it can really deliver for us in 2016.

In parallel with yesterday’s Queen Speech, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, made a written statement today on zero-carbon homes. I want to comment briefly on one aspect of that: what is described as a “small site exemption”. Perhaps the Secretary of State can give us a little more information on that. I remind him that there is no need to exclude small sites from the application of allowable solutions. We already have a system, very often played out through section 106, whereby if recreational facilities cannot be provided on site, a developer will contribute to a fund for those facilities to be provided elsewhere. That mostly applies to small sites, because they are the ones where a playground cannot be fitted in easily and so money is paid to enhance playgrounds nearby. He is going to be consulting on the small site exemption and I urge him to accept that my consultation number for the size of small sites should be zero homes and no bigger.

I wish to focus on one other aspect of energy policy as it affects housing efficiency, and it relates to clause 29 of the Deregulation Bill. Again, there is some history here. In 2003, the London borough of Merton won a High Court case allowing it to set energy standards for housing in its borough. That was strongly challenged by the then Labour Government and came at the same time as the Bill that became my 2004 Act was going through Parliament. I wrote into my Bill a clause that “legitimised” the Merton ruling, but the Labour Government and the local government Minister at the time took stock and decided that the embarrassment of challenging this sensible provision outweighed anything else. The Labour Government announced that they were not going to challenge the ruling, and the clause came out of my draft Bill, as it then was, and did not need to find its form in that legislation. I say to the Secretary of State that it was a good localism measure, predating the very good work he has put in place since 2010. I urge him to talk to his colleagues across government and persuade them that we do not need clause 29 of this new Bill, or that if we do, it should not come into force until zero-carbon homes are in place in 2016. Otherwise, we shall have a gap in the provision of energy performance for housing, which nobody wants and nobody needs. Let us be the greenest Government ever.