Peers have turned the heat on government over its refusal to back a Lords bill that would put the present fuel poverty target for housing into primary legislation – and strengthen the means to hold government to account over the energy performance of homes.
Energy Minister Lord Duncan of Springbank told the Lords that the bill would cut across coming strategy while offering no new powers or levers.
The bill was introduced by Lord Forster of Bath, who said nothing in it could be seen as cutting across the government’s plans.
Instead, he said, the bill provided in statute legally binding dates by which “certain things” should be achieved that were already in the strategy.
“The difference with not putting that in legislation is that it does not provide [The Lords and The Commons] with the means to hold this and future governments to account,” he said.
Lord Foster introduced the Domestic Premises (Energy Performance) Bill to the Lords in January.
As proposed, the bill would put an existing fuel poverty target into primary legislation where, currently, the Fuel Poverty (England) Regulations 2014 require the government to improve the energy efficiency of homes for people living in fuel poverty.
Properties must have a minimum energy performance certificate (EPC) band C rating by the end of 2030, though this date could be changed through secondary legislation.
The bill would require in primary legislation that the Secretary of State publishes and implements a strategy to deliver on this specific 2030 target.
And the bill would also make it a legal requirement for the government to meet a further target: that as many homes as possible are improved to EPC band C by 2035.
This target is not currently set out in legislation.
Other provisions include enabling the Secretary of State to require mortgage lenders to provide information on the energy performance of properties in their portfolio; and new requirements concerning the energy efficiency of new heating systems installed in existing properties.
Lord Foster argued this bill would better enable the government to meet both its existing fuel poverty target and its target for reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
In July last year, the government launched a consultation on proposals for updating its current fuel poverty strategy.
The consultation ended in September with the government still to publish its response.
During the bill’s second reading in the Lords, Baroness Jones of Moulescoomb told the House she was still “fuming” that new homes are not being built to net-zero standards, after the government pulled the zero-carbon homes plan in 2016.
“Ministers are going to start celebrating their new policy of zero-carbon homes by the middle of this decade, but even if they do carry through on this, that is still 10 years of dirty housebuilding compared to what we should have seen,” said Baroness Jones.
“[But] this Bill is not about new housing; we are talking about bringing Britain’s leaky housing stock up to modern standards of energy efficiency,” she said.
Lord Best steered debate toward the PRS where energy standards, he said, are proportionately at their worst levels in warning of an “underlying problem” inherent in the upgrading of properties being the lack of benefit to landlord because more energy-efficient properties seldom generate higher rents.
“It is true that landlords can expect cost savings from good tenants staying longer, so saving the costs of reletting homes, and from ongoing maintenance bills being lower because they are so often caused by damp and condensation.
“But persuading private landlords to invest significantly when financial returns are not evident has proved a stumbling block to a series of earlier efforts, including the ill-fated Green Deal,” said Lord Best.
Currently, and quite properly, private landlords must cover energy-saving costs of up to £3,500, in most circumstances, if properties fall below the EPC (energy performance certificate) band E rating.
“It will be a big jump to require expenditure of up to £20,000, which may be needed if major works such as external wall insulation are necessary to achieve a band C rating.
“It is sensible for government to recognise from the outset that enforcing payment from the 2.4 million private landlords, the majority of whom own only one or two properties, will be a difficult and costly task.
“I suspect that the necessary co-operation of the private-rented sector will be forthcoming only if the government accept the painful necessity for significant grant-aiding or serious tax concessions for PRS properties,” he said.
Lord Debden told the House that the situation was made worse by at least 250,000 homes every year being built that won’t meet future requirements.
“This is barmy, and I am fed up with people, particularly ministers of all kinds, telling me that because the other is the bigger issue they do not want to concentrate on the smaller one.
“Since they have been doing that, the bigger issue has gone up by two million – we have not done what we could have done,” said Lord Debden.
He accused the nine big housebuilders, building nearly 80% of the homes that are bought, of avoiding their duty to raise standards on the basis that the government has not raised them for them.
“I have worked out that, between now and 2035, there will be three million new homes, which under the present measurements will probably not meet the standards that the government are trying to reach by that year,” he said.
Lord Redesdale said the standard of houses being built at the moment is appalling.
“We have let the housebuilders get away with it because we want new houses, but the quality is very low and, in some cases, shocking,” he said.
Lord Teverson asked why housing stock was not fit for the future when it accounted for 14% of UK carbon emissions.
He criticised the “chopping and changing” of related policies with very little real continuity.
Lord McNicol of West Kilbride said the government spending commitment of £3.8m to insulate two million social homes, and £2.5bn on retrofitting 200,000 fuel-poor households, was far less than what is needed – with a full retrofit be offered to only a small fraction of the 3.5 million households in the UK living in fuel poverty.
He referenced Labour’s call for the government to fully fund the retrofit of every low-income property in the country and provide interest-free loans to enable able-to-pay households to do that.
For the government, Lord Duncan offered a commitment that in 2025, the new standards will come into operation on any house that is under construction – with no wait for the planning period to be fulfilled.
But, while the bill stimulated debate, the government would not – and could not – support it.
Instead, Lord Duncan offered “assurances” that in the development of the strategies to come, involvement from Peers who had taken an interest in the bill would be welcome.
“It will be important to ensure that the strategies have clear dates, and we have a road map with commitments which fit into a legal framework to ensure the certainty which underpins the purpose behind the Bill: to allow the building sector to understand what it is up against, what it has to commit to, and, frankly, what it should be exceeding.
“These should be setting minimum standards – there should not be any limit on their ambitions to move beyond that point,” said Lord Duncan.
“The policies that we will be putting out in a matter of a few months will set the strategic direction and set in place within a road map how we will achieve it – the bill before us would cut across that and reduce our flexibility when that comes forward.
“The other aspect of the Bill is that it gives us no new powers or levers, it does not actually help us achieve the ends; it would simply set the framework within which we are to achieve them,” he said.