Housing and Planning Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by my noble friend, which has been supported also by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and my Labour colleague. There is absolutely no inconsistency with Conservative policy, or the Conservative Government’s policy, in supporting this amendment. I remind the Minister that although the genesis of this measure lay with the preceding outgoing Labour Government, it was strongly supported by both parties in the coalition agreement. Indeed, last year the Prime Minister said at the conclusion of COP 21:

“The talks at the COP21 conference in Paris have culminated in a global deal, with the whole world now signed up to play its part in halting climate change. In other words, this generation has taken vital steps to ensure that our children and grandchildren will see that we did our duty in securing the future of our planet”.

Therefore, I say to noble Lords on all sides of the House that this is absolutely a mainstream and necessary policy move to take. Of all the things that can be done to improve the UK’s performance on reducing climate change and the impact of CO2 emissions, tackling the built environment is right at the top of the list. Buildings account for 34% of our carbon emissions and within that homes account for two-thirds—that is, 22% of carbon emissions—significantly more than the whole of the transport sector. Governments devote many brain cells trying to find ways of reducing vehicle emissions and CO2 emissions but contribute nothing like the same level of policy input or intensity to reducing the much bigger output of carbon dioxide emitted from homes.

That brings me to the reasons given by the Minister when we discussed this in Committee. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments deployed then, but one which came across very strongly was that the Government were placing a lot of reliance on the additional cost that this measure would impose on the construction of an average house. Connected to that was their understanding that if there was such an additional cost, it would automatically lead to a reduction in the volume of homes that would be built. As my noble friend said, at the time the Minister relied on a Zero Carbon Hub estimate that the extra cost would be £2,885 per home. Unfortunately, the Minister did not complete the quotation from the Zero Carbon Hub report, which said that the cost would fall very substantially over subsequent time. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned a range of values. It is highly likely that at this stage, two years after that estimate was made, the likely cost, given existing technology and building experience, would be about half that figure—perhaps, say, £1,500. If the cost was £1,500, the annual saving mentioned by the Minister in Committee would be repaid in five years. In other words, the additional cost would be repaid in five years given the reduced energy costs for the inhabitants of those homes. Given that the typical house built today will still be standing and occupied in 60 years, I would have thought a payback period of five years suggests that there is not too much of a problem on that score.

A second leg of that argument was that the increased cost of construction would result in fewer homes being built. I have put some questions to the Minister which I hope she will be able to answer when she responds to this debate. I thank her for the very constructive meeting with her that she arranged for a number of us who support this amendment. The reality is that building costs go up each year in any case for lots of reasons such as shortage of labour, increased pay rates, shortage of materials and higher costs. For instance, the average cost of building a three-bedroom home in Hertfordshire has been slightly higher in each of the last five years. It has been increasing. I hope the Minister will be able to give us those figures later on. It is even more true that the cost of the land on which that home is built has been increasing as well, by a very much larger amount. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us what that increase is.

It ought to follow, from the theory deployed in Committee by the Government Front Bench, that as those costs rise the number of homes should fall and, presumably, so would their price. It is interesting that the sale price of a typical three-bedroom house in Hertfordshire has been rising faster than any increase in construction costs. It is also the case that this has not led to a reduction in the volume of housebuilding. It seems that neither leg of the argument stands up in regard to the link between the cost of providing high quality and the impact on volume or quantity. I hope the Minister will provide the House with some additional information on that and, perhaps, tell noble Lords which leg of the argument the Government will now use to advance the view that this amendment should be rejected.

It has also been said, and was mentioned in Committee, that the Federation of Master Builders is against this proposal and is very important. I do not think anybody in this House would deny its importance, but its members are only responsible for some 20% of the new homes built each year. As has been reported, the overwhelming concerns of builders large and small are access to finance and land and shortage of labour. Right down at the bottom, at only 4%, are concerns relating to regulation and red tape. I do not know what other arguments the Minister may rely on. There is certainly a need for more consultation, but all the consultation on this proposal has already been carried out and the Government had already reached the conclusion that it was appropriate to go ahead. Any consultation which may still be necessary will easily fit into the 12-month period allowed for in this proposed new clause.

I guess that the final argument will be that such a provision should not be so precisely and explicitly stated in the Bill: it ought to be in regulations. The Government have brought this upon themselves. The regulations already exist; they have been printed and published. However, the Government have announced that the next triennial uplift in building regulations has been cancelled. They could reinstate it, they could give an undertaking to proceed with the stalled regulations. They have not done so and that means that the only way forward, the only way to demonstrate that Britain is sincere in its signature on COP 21, the only way of helping the Prime Minister to demonstrate that this Government, like the preceding one, intend to be the greenest ever, is for this clause to receive the support of your Lordships today.