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Housing Energy Efficiency

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 11:00 am on 30th March 2000.

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Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 11:00 am, 30th March 2000

As winter draws to a close, it is timely for us to debate a problem that will have cost the national health service millions of pounds over the past few months. During that time, it will also have cost lives.

Let us be clear about the reality. Scotland has the worst housing conditions in northern Europe. A quarter of our homes are damp or have condensation. The average energy rating of a Scottish home is only four out of 10 on the national home energy rating scheme. Some 362,000 children and 119,000 pensioners live in houses that suffer from damp or condensation. That poor housing costs us a fortune; £100 million is spent by the NHS in Scotland each year to treat the victims of cold, damp housing. Every winter, emergency admissions of people suffering from respiratory diseases increase dramatically. Ministers claim that the winter bulge is caused by flu epidemics, but NHS figures show that the rise occurs even when flu is excluded from the figures. Poor health is not the only result. The excess winter death rate in Scotland is twice as high as in Scandinavian countries, which are colder than Scotland, and Canada; it is higher even than in Siberia. Recent press reports show that the death rate at the end of the 1990s is rising again; again, that is caused not by flu alone. Poor energy efficiency is a life-and-death issue.

Age Concern says that our pensioners cannot afford to wait for a rolling plan that now has no set date. In the partnership agreement, the Labour party said that the date would be 2007, but that seems to have disappeared.

Poor housing is bad for health, and it kills; it is also bad for the environment. Our poor housing stock leads us to waste precious fuel and to pump out extra pollution. A proper programme of home improvement could cut carbon dioxide emissions dramatically, by up to 9 million tonnes a year. Given the Government's admission of defeat in getting to grips with transport emissions—it refuses to set CO2 reduction targets for transport—it will need all the more help from action in other sectors.

The scale of fuel poverty makes a mockery of social inclusion. A massive 506,000 households need to spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating and hot water alone. If other fuel uses are taken into account, the figure is 738,000. Fuel poverty takes money from the pockets of pensioners and children, money that could otherwise be spent on better food or clothing, and in local shops or on local services.

We have a massive problem in Scotland, but also a massive opportunity. Better housing means better health and a better environment; it would also boost local economies. The Executive understands that, but current Government initiatives, although they are a start, are inadequate. That is why I cannot accept the Executive's amendment, which wipes out, from my motion, the drawing up of new guidelines for efficient use of energy in homes; the provision of a minimum level of heating in properties; the appointment of a domestic energy efficiency co-ordinator in every local area; the identification of new fuel poverty and carbon dioxide reduction targets; and the establishment of a domestic fuel poverty advisory group.

I am pleased that the Executive has accepted, in its amendment, that home energy profiles should be available to house buyers and sellers, but that is not all that it has done. It invites us to commend a scheme that is clearly not working and is giving much concern to organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Energy Action Scotland and Age Concern—indeed practically everyone involved in reviewing the situation. The Executive cannot seriously ask us to vote for an amendment that wants us simply to commend a good idea.

Although winter fuel allowances for pensioners are a welcome attempt to address the poverty of those who live in poor housing, the housing stock remains so poor that most of that £100—soon to be £150—will go on heating the air around the houses, rather than on the houses themselves. Some pigeons roosting in the eaves have greater comfort levels than our pensioners. Furthermore, the winter fuel allowance does nothing for families with young children, especially lone parents who also spend long days in cold homes; and it does very little if—as The Sunday Times reported this weekend—it does not arrive until some time in spring, possibly posthumously in some cases.

The warm deal programme is the Government's flagship initiative for tackling fuel poverty. However, although it is targeted on the poor, it is poorly targeted. Furthermore, it is under-resourced: its maximum grant is too little to tackle the problem. A report from Scottish Homes, which the Executive has so far declined to publish, shows that at best the warm deal can reach only one sixth of the families that suffer from fuel poverty.

What could be done? We are missing a huge opportunity to tackle this blight on Scotland. In its 1999 election manifesto, the Scottish Labour party pledged to eradicate fuel poverty by 2007; however, that pledge disappeared from the coalition agreement. Although a huge amount of money has been spent on repairs and improvement of Scottish housing, it has not been properly co-ordinated and directed. That must change.

The basic housing standard for Scotland, known as the tolerable standard, is a remnant of the 19th century. The first housing bill for 12 years presents an opportunity for change. However, last year's housing green paper—the first for a generation—made very little of tackling fuel poverty.

I want to propose a range of policies that could be easily implemented to ensure that the ambitious but achievable target of ending fuel poverty is met. The housing bill, which is to be published this summer, must include measures on fuel poverty, and I will mention two examples. First, the sole statutory standard—the tolerable standard—that was introduced in the 1960s should include a measure of energy efficiency. That is a simple thing to ask for. Most people would find it astonishing that the basic standard does not mention the biggest problem in Scottish housing. The then Scottish Office launched its review of the tolerable standard two years ago, since when there has been silence.

Secondly, the role of Scottish Homes is being expanded to regulate both housing associations and council housing departments. The agency could have a new role in regulating the private rented sector, where conditions are worst. The regulation could be undertaken through local authorities, with Scottish Homes setting out standards and model practice. We already spend more than £200 million in Scotland in housing benefit payments to private landlords, and it is about time that we were able to guarantee that tenants were at least living in dry, warm conditions.

However, I do not want to leave the impression that because we are a legislature, all measures must be by law. If it wished, the Scottish Executive could introduce many measures tomorrow that would not involve opening the statute book, which is the issue addressed by my motion. First, I propose a new home energy efficiency champion for Scotland, who would act as a linchpin between the 32 local authorities, which should have overall control over energy efficiency in their areas, and the departments in Whitehall and Europe that also influence energy policy. The new post would be charged with co-ordinating the countless different energy initiatives, to ensure that they were all pulling in the same direction.

Secondly, I want local authorities to be placed at the heart of local energy efficiency work. Although they already have that role through the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995—which, incidentally, was a Green party initiative even before we had parliamentary representation here—they have few powers to make it real.

Thirdly, if it wanted to, the Executive could change the tolerable standard guidance tomorrow. At the moment, a house will pass the tolerable standard specification for adequate heating if there is an electric plug point in the room. The guidance could be changed to make it clear that a plug point is not enough and to reflect the need for heating provision to be adequate and affordable.

Fourthly, although regulation of the mortgage industry is a reserved area, the law governing house purchase is devolved. I would like energy ratings to become a compulsory part of the standard survey that is done when a house is sold. The Executive has discussed the introduction of a seller's survey to the Scottish housing market. It would be easy to introduce energy ratings as part of that. I am glad to hear that the Executive is at least conceding that point.

Much of what I have said is about making better use of the resources that we have. Between them, landlords and owner-occupiers spend more than £3 billion a year on repairs and improvements to Scottish homes. However, that money is not always spent in ways that provide the maximum long-term benefits to the community, the environment and the nation's health.

Plans are afoot to improve Scotland's housing stock. It is vital that the billions of pounds are invested wisely. All local authority housing plans and new housing partnership transfer plans should be subject to health impact assessments. In England, an idea is being permitted to go ahead, I believe in Cornwall, whereby doctors can prescribe insulation on the national health service.

We need to measure exactly what will be contributed to better homes, better health and a greener future for Scotland. What I have said only scratches the surface of what is possible. Our homes have to last 60 years or more. What we decide today will have a profound impact on the decisions that our grandchildren face.

We like to talk about joined-up thinking in Scotland. Let us move now to joined-up doing. I urge every member to support the motion and to become at one swoop an environmentalist, a health activist and an anti-poverty crusader.

I move,

That the Parliament calls upon the Scottish Executive to draw up and issue new guidelines to improve housing energy efficiency in both the public and private rented sectors and in the privately owned sector which include requirements that (a) at point of sale owners are entitled, as part of the Executive's proposed "Seller's Survey", to have access to a home energy profile based on National Home Energy Rating (NHER) specifications, (b) NHER energy audits are carried out on change of occupation in both the public and private rented sectors and (c) the guidance on the Tolerable Standard is amended to include a minimum level of provision for affordable heating within a property; commends local authorities on innovative initiatives such as the Edinburgh Rewarm project and asks the Executive to revise its Home Energy Conservation Act (HECA) 1995 guidance to require local authorities to appoint a dedicated HECA officer to co-ordinate all domestic energy initiatives in each locality, and urges the Executive to acknowledge its responsibilities under Climate Change Protocols and its own commitment to end fuel poverty by 2007 by identifying new targets and funds required to meet these targets and by setting up a fuel poverty advisory group, chaired by a newly appointed home energy efficiency champion, to prepare recommendations on the elimination of fuel poverty by 2007 and co-ordinate policy and funding in the domestic sector.