Energy Company Obligation — [Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:28 pm on 11th March 2014.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 3:28 pm, 11th March 2014

The starting point for the debate must be the notorious Prime Minister’s Question Time at the end of November, half way through which he announced that there would be a green levy review. Sure enough, there was one; only, because it appeared that the review was thought of about two minutes before Prime Minister’s Question Time, the green levies were not reviewed but stayed roughly as they were. ECO was reviewed instead, and the result is that we are where we are now.

The document put out by the Department said:

“One of the major challenges for the ECO and Green Deal is the changing nature of the types of measures that need to be delivered. CERT, by focusing on delivering low-cost measures, has been very successful at installing simple loft and cavity wall insulation. From 2012 Green Deal finance will offer a route to deliver the remaining low cost loft and cavity wall opportunities at no upfront cost and without need for subsidy. However to meet our carbon budgets cost effectively, we will need to go far beyond just lofts and cavity walls, and move towards the next most cost effective measures.

However, some 7 million of the most difficult to treat homes require some form of solid wall insulation. The Committee on Climate Change recommended in their 2009 Report, ‘Meeting Carbon Budgets – the need for a step change’ that 2.3 million solid wall homes will need to have taken up solid wall insulation by 2022 in order for the UK to be on track to achieve carbon budgets. ECO support for these properties will help drive this market, and the supply chain to fulfil it, enabling us to unlock the resulting carbon savings more cost effectively.”

That was the prospectus that people bought into when they started doing work on ECO. In that context, the process of the review has been interesting, because it effectively boiled down to ECO having to take the bullet. In quick order, it was announced on 2 December that there would be substantial changes in how ECO would work, without an impact assessment. Only now has a consultation paper been released. It says that a number of the proposals have already been announced or foreshadowed in the Government’s announcement on 2 December. I am reminded a little of the referendum in Crimea, where first the outcome is announced, then a consultation is held on what the announcement should be. The measures in the 2 December announcement, which essentially stretch out like a lump of pizza dough the annual overall commitment of some £1.3 billion from two years to four years—however it may be wrapped up in decisions to borrow from some parts of the ECO programme to maintain others—starve elements of ECO of resources, particularly the carbon emissions reduction obligation.

That announcement, however, was wrapped up in something of a complication, because ECO finances are predicated on the achievement by obligated energy companies of a carbon obligation—that is, the obligation is discharged by the amount of carbon saved by the measures undertaken—and the estimated overall finances relate essentially to what it will cost, collectively, for that overall obligation to be discharged. Treatment costs for each hard-to-treat property, for example, add up to a cost per tonne of carbon saved, and if the companies have to discharge that obligation within a set period—initially for ECO, that is 2015—the price paid for each tonne saved will logically be higher than if the same level of obligation was over a more extended period.

Another issue is the extent to which the programme admits of access to measures, which, by their nature, allow for savings to be made at a lower cost per tonne of carbon dioxide saved. Those measures, however are supposed by and large to be covered by the green deal, whereby the cost of loans for measures is recovered from bills. As the original Department of Energy and Climate Change document says, ECO should be concerned only about the measures that go beyond those treatments. However, if such measures are allowed to count for ECO’s purposes instead of green deal purposes, inevitably a carbon obligation can be discharged by concentrating on those measures, rather than on the hard-to-treat homes specified in the original DECC document on ECO.

Indeed, the consultative document published last week recognises that. On page 28, it states:

“Taken together, the proposals are likely to see a greater focus on cheaper, easier measures and a correspondingly diminished role for Solid Wall Insulation in ECO delivery.”

It continues:

“However, the Government is clear that SWI represents a major challenge for the nation’s housing stock, with nearly eight million households of solid wall construction, of which only 3% per cent have wall insulation.”

The Government set a sub-target for solid-wall insulation that is about half the estimated target in the original ECO plans.

Of course, no one told the dozens of local authorities, housing associations, and insulating companies that that was in store. Trusting the word of the Department, they did exactly the right thing in getting the best result possible from the areas that ECO was supposed to concentrate on, namely the uplifting, area by area, of those hard-to-treat homes, using their local skills and considerable efforts in developing partnerships to do so. After all, we know that area uplift worked well under the community energy saving programme and the carbon emissions reduction target. There were better results overall in value per treatment—a large chunk of the target was reached area by area—than by searching randomly for individual properties to uplift.

I will add our local programme in Southampton to the pot. In November 2013, the council announced a £30 million programme to make energy improvements to more than 2,000 council properties in Southampton over the next 18 months. It included cladding of high-rise buildings, cladding of system built non-cavity homes, and a district heating scheme alongside. That would, by the way, create between 600 and 900 jobs, as well as safeguarding 300 jobs locally. That was a partnership between the city council, a property services company and an obligated energy company. That was all very rosy, except that as soon as the Government announcement was made and it rapidly became apparent to energy companies that the obligations as previously constructed were being thrown out of the window, they drew back from progressing the scheme. It may be that some of the programme can be saved, but the prospects of thousands of residents of Southampton having possibly life-changing reductions in their energy bills in the near future, of some of the worst insulated properties in the city being transformed and of carbon efficiency in buildings in the city taking a leap forward are possibly wholly and at least largely off the agenda right now. It is the same in many other places across the country.