Political parties need to be clear on their sustainability policies for the future

Sarah Richardson

In a still-recovering economy, where growth and employment are at the heart of the political agenda, the words of the boss of one of the UK’s largest insulation installers this week should be a warning that echoes around the corridors of Whitehall.

Announcing that his company is being forced to make a quarter of its UK staff redundant, Mark Group’s chief commercial officer Bill Rumble pinned the blame squarely on changes in the government’s energy efficiency policies. He emphasized that the firm had scaled up to meet demand expected to be driven by the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) scheme, one of the government’s flagship retrofit programmes, that had not materialised as a result of cuts to the scheme. He then said that the company would need to “operate with a smaller workforce until there is a clear and consistent approach to energy efficiency policy”.

The link between repeated U-turns on initiatives like the ECO, and the lost opportunity to spur economic growth through sustainability improvements, could not be starker than in stories like this. Instead of enabling a major UK employer to grow its business, reducing built environment carbon emissions in the process, the government’s approach to policy will result in up to 670 staff losing their jobs in a single blow. It is becoming a worryingly familiar story: Carillion’s announcement of up to 1,000 job cuts as a result of the faltering Green Deal market at the turn of the year is still a raw memory.

But will the government heed the warning Mark Group’s situation represents? All evidence so far suggests not. The number of energy efficient measures installed under ECO has fallen each month since the end of March, the point from which the emissions reduction credit that energy companies will receive for work under the scheme is expected to reduce. This is part of proposals which incentivised work in the short-term but, damagingly, will spin the bulk of the initiative out over double the length of time originally planned. Yet there is no suggestion from government that it will revert to its original approach. Similarly, there has been no move to extend the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund - designed to incentivise people to undertake energy efficiency work in their homes - despite it being stopped within six weeks of opening after its funds were fully allocated.

The clearest way of getting the consistent approach to policy that potentially could have saved those jobs at Mark Group would be the kind of cross-party, long-term consensus on key energy and infrastructure priorities advocated by Sir John Armitt in his infrastructure policy review in January, and which is at the heart of Building’s Agenda 15 campaign for a longer-term approach to construction policy. But if a single administration cannot even be consistent in its own approach for more than a few months, that wider political consensus looks unlikely.

At the end of this month, the annual political party conferences will kick off the parties’ run in to the next general election. Sustainability policies are not going to dominate the main agenda, but for construction, and energy specialists like Mark Group, there would be fewer bigger wins than signs of a clear approach from each party to the sustainability of the built environment - and retrofit in particular.

Sarah Richardson, editor