Energy Company Obligation — [Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:39 pm on 11th March 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 3:39 pm, 11th March 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood on her tenacity and on securing today’s debate.

In the brief time available to me, I want to concentrate on my constituency and the businesses in it. Hyndburn has some of the oldest, coldest housing stock in the country. Hyndburn council recently launched a warm homes energy company obligation scheme that is now under threat before it has even begun. The businesses in the green economy in my constituency that were innovating and creating jobs as result of the ECO are now concerned about their future and the ECO’s future funding.

The ECO is of particular help to places such as Haslingden and Hyndburn and cutting or even rolling back the scheme will have a disproportionate effect in a constituency such as mine. There is a perverse reality to the Government’s action in that the rolling back of the ECO will help my constituents not by insulating their hard-to-treat homes and saving them thousands on heating bills over decades, but through a comparatively small reduction in their heating bills.

Hyndburn has some of the poorest quality housing stock in the country, with 41.5% of total dwellings built prior to 1919—well above the English average of 23.6%. Some 60% is old, terraced stock and includes hard-to-insulate, Victorian, stone properties. The historic stone façade prohibits external insulation and insulating inside walls is difficult. How do people insulate the inside wall of a rear kitchen or a bathroom, let alone around bay windows and doors? The scale of the problem of cold homes in Hyndburn is chronic.

As a result of the age of the stock, 50.2% of category 1 hazards in Hyndburn are due to excess cold. Of category 2 hazards, the number of properties suffering from excess cold is a staggering 78.5%. Hyndburn borough council’s 2009 housing condition survey noted a 24.5% rate of thermal discomfort compared with the English average of 18.3%. As a result, fuel poverty, as one would expect, is at 20.4% compared with the English average of 13.9%.

The housing stock in my constituency is exactly the kind that is most in need of insulation and energy-efficiency measures. According to studies, nine out of 10 stone terraced properties of that age have hard-to-treat cavities that would benefit from the ECO. The prevalence of hard-to-treat cavities in Hyndburn is precisely why the ECO presented such an opportunity to my constituents and other local councils across east Lancashire to tackle insulation, fuel poverty and the UK’s climate change obligations. My constituency is a beneficiary of an ECO scheme, but the recently launched “Warm Homes Hyndburn” is now under significant threat.

Benefits come not only from insulating individual properties. Isothane Ltd—one of its directors is here today—is an innovative company located in Altham in my constituency and is a market leader in the insulation of hard-to-treat cavities. One of its products, a high thermal insulating foam with high bonding qualities, offers the insulation market a world-beating product. If supported, that type of company and product in the green economy can provide innovation and future green jobs.

The company is fully behind the National Energy Foundation’s opposition to the ECO reforms. The NEF believes that cuts to the ECO will mean not only poorer health conditions for people living in the uninsulated homes found in my constituency, but job losses in the energy efficiency industry. Isothane Ltd is engaged in several local authority projects that are in receipt of ECO funding and a reduction in such funding will clearly and directly impact on the company. The company and the industry are being hit not only by reductions in the ECO, but by how the ECO is funded, which is creating a huge disincentive. It is a double whammy. Mervyn Kirk at Isothane told me that

“Isothane has received no funding whatsoever for the work undertaken so far in preparation; publicity materials, canvassing and surveyors’ costs have all been paid direct” by the company. He continued:

“All ECO funding is claimed retrospectively, so any work undertaken in schemes such as this is at considerable expense and risk to the installer.”

That is an important point.

The insulation industry had been given a clear incentive and direction of travel by the Government and had begun to invest and to create employment. By letting energy companies off the hook, however, the Government have created uncertainty and, according to the National Energy Foundation, have put thousands of jobs at risk. The Government took the decision on the questionable premise that it will lead to energy bill savings. Why have the Government injected uncertainty and then proceeded to hold a retrospective consultation? Are they considering abandoning the reductions and reversing the policy or is the consultation a simple rubber-stamping exercise? The situation is resulting in misery for those people living in hard-to-treat properties in Hyndburn and Haslingden. They will no longer get insulation and will continue to spend way above the national average on energy bills; they are effectively being punished for living in such properties.

Mervyn Kirk also said:

“In general, when ECO funding levels were around £85+ per carbon tonne, the majority of properties were able to have specialist insulation installed at no cost to the occupant as long as we were able to encourage neighbouring properties to sign up, i.e. blocks of 3 or 4 properties together…but as funding dropped to around £60 to £75 per carbon tonne, this became unworkable. The funding levels have since plummeted further and there is no confidence about levels of funding for ANY hard-to-treat cavities beyond the end of this month.”

For the record, the month in question is March 2014—this month.

I was told recently by Michael Morrall of Dyson Insulations, which was managing the ECO project in Hyndburn and installing insulation, that because the borough of Hyndburn is so densely stocked with properties of random stone cavity construction, the hard-to-treat carbon emissions reduction obligation of the ECO previously made insulating cavity walls a “fantastic opportunity” to make a change to people’s lives. Cuts to the CERO obligation have driven down the available funding, which has drastically changed the viability of installing the measures without a substantial contribution towards funding shortfalls from occupiers or local authorities. It is worth putting on the record that Hyndburn council has experienced some of the deepest cuts in the UK and is one of only seven authorities to be given a temporary rebate to cap the cuts at the maximum possible, so I do not know where local authority funding will come from.

Mervyn Kirk of Isothane Ltd also said to me:

“As the available funding levels have been gradually reduced by the energy companies, the ability for us to offer free specialist insulation to address fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency standards in traditional terraced, stone-built property has become less and less viable. Hence the current situation where homes have already had surveys undertaken, but we can only install where the gap between ECO funding and costs are met elsewhere. In the Burnley target area”—

Burnley is a neighbouring authority of Hyndburn—

“there are too many properties requiring additional funding to be able to stretch the limited resources available.”

In effect, that means that the scheme will be wound down before it has started. In a deprived area with a cash-strapped local authority and stone-built terraced properties, that could effectively kill off the scheme.

The situation stands in stark and embarrassing contrast with what the Government have said previously. In a letter that I received late last year, the Minister stated, particularly of the “Warm Homes Hyndburn” scheme:

“These are just the sort of projects that will be required to tackle the challenge of effectively insulating hard-to-treat properties.”

Fast forward just four months, however, and the Government are actively and knowingly taking steps that take us in the opposite direction and make it more difficult to achieve energy efficiency in my constituency’s housing stock. It has been a monumental shambles from the Government—the only things that have been injected are cynicism, confusion, disappointment and anger into those affected by the changes. Why has the Minister’s position changed in the short time between writing to me before Christmas, when he said that such a scheme was required in Hyndburn, and now, when he is overseeing its whole demise? Did he consider the effects that such changes would have on constituencies such as mine, or was that just an afterthought?

I must finish on this. Did the Minister see “Newsnight” two weeks ago? It showed some of the worst housing in Britain in Hyndburn. I am sure that all who saw that were shocked that such conditions could exist in this country. People on benefits were living in stone-built terraced properties with rising damp and cold in every single room. Every window and every door was mouldy. Will the Minister come to Hyndburn to understand why the old ECO scheme was so important to my constituency? Will he visit Isothane Ltd to see the opportunities that the green economy brings?