Without a proper evidence base, this government is making decisions on energy, carbon and buildings that are disastrously ill-informed
The building industry is well used to having to adapt to the whims of changing government policies and a lack of long- term strategy. We are not alone. I’ve just finished reading The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, existing and past professors of government at the University of Essex. Five years ago, I read British Government in Crisis, by Sir Christopher Foster, a former senior civil servant and then a special adviser.
The books tell a gloomy tale of a government that has outsourced its institutional memory and become detached from parliament, the civil service, and the evidence base. In spite of being poorly equipped to deal with changes, social, institutional and economic, it has also developed a preference for leaps in the dark. These have too often floundered on the practicalities of motivating people and getting things done, or been overwhelmed by high costs and unintended consequences.
The policy in relation to energy and buildings provides material for a whole encyclopaedia, more every day. In 2001, I wrote Flying Blind, about the lack of understanding of energy use in non-domestic buildings, and what is now called the performance gap. In the introduction, I worried that dispersal of buildings and energy related activities from the former Department of the Environment to several ministries might create jumbled-up, not joined-up government.
For 20 years since Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the United Nations, Britain took the lead internationally in setting the climate change agenda, with broad cross-party support. Sure, the rhetoric ran ahead of the action, but from ‘the greenest government ever’, we now seem to have no strategy at all
In the event, the outcomes have been worse than I feared, with problems exacerbated by the loss of BRE as a national laboratory, and the Carbon Trust - to which the Energy Efficiency Best Practice programme was transferred - not seeing the provision of a common technical infrastructure as part of its job. Lacking a focus and a language for tackling energy demand at the local level, we clutch at straws - including nuclear power: too late, too expensive, too inflexible, too risky. Not surprisingly, the Japanese are urging us not to go there and the Irish aren’t very happy either. We haven’t heard the last of Fukushima and there are legitimate concerns about the untried “fast” design of Hinkley C, let alone the unsolved problems about the legacy of waste management.
To please the red-tops, it seems that the government is now are set to dismantle much of what is in place to help reduce energy demand in the face of inevitable pressures on energy security, energy costs and climate change. What went wrong? For 20 years since Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the United Nations, Britain took the lead internationally in setting the climate change agenda, with broad cross-party support. Sure, the rhetoric ran ahead of the action, but from “the greenest government ever”, we now seem to have no strategy at all.
In previous pieces, I deplored the absence of a technical platform – a strong, well-informed and independent technical core in relation to energy, carbon and buildings; and the lack of investment in energy certificates, particularly Display Energy Certificates (DECs). If properly supported and benchmarked, DECs could have made the energy performance of non-domestic buildings properly visible, helped to focus everybody’s efforts on improving it - cost-effectively, and for real. If government had been properly supported technically, it could also have reduced the amount of other legislation using the principle: measure once, use many times.
Now I learn that, in the absence of strong enforcement, DCLG has paid Landmark (who operate the supporting system and database for EPCs and DECs) £ 5.7mn for loss of income, just because fewer certificates were processed than predicted. Just think where we might have been if we could have invested that in developing a really effective system of reporting and benchmarking. Instead DCLG’s contribution to DEC benchmark development has been precisely zero.
Buried in Column 67 WS of Hansard for 13 September 2013, a statement from the minister, Mark Prisk, says “… the Department has reluctantly agreed to make a payment of £ 5.7m to cover these costs up to April 2013. It is the view of ministers that it is clearly unacceptable that contracts were drawn up and operated which outsourced a service to the private sector, but left taxpayers with unreasonable commercial risks.”
And where does this statement leave the proposed contract for Hinkley C, may I ask?
Bill Bordass is a building scientist and founder of William Bordass Associates