Phil Hope is charge of chivvying the industry into becoming energy efficient, sustainable and security conscious, while simultaneously championing IT and keeping the ODPM green. So a metaphor rather suggests itself, as we point out.

Phil Hope
Phil Hope

Phil Hope’s press minder is not sure he should be juggling for the camera. Lynn Nasti accepts that it’s a good metaphor for how the minister responsible for the Building Regulations and sustainable construction manages his extensive portfolio, but she’s worried the images could fall into the wrong hands. This is understandable. Her political charge is only a promotion or two away from the public eye, and images of Hope “hopelessly” dropping his balls would be a gift for professionally malicious headline writers.

But before Nasti has the chance to veto the stunt, Hope is away, eagerly demonstrating his juggling skills with three balls provided by our photographer. Within a few minutes he’s adroitly throwing them from under one leg.

“I can do clubs as well,” he says. “And the pièce de résistance – fire clubs.”

Clearly, the minister is not afraid to enjoy himself at Whitehall. His thoughts on bone-dry topics such as Part L and self-certification are punctuated with laughter. It’s easy to see why Hope is popular with his civil servants. “A very decent man,” says one. And his apparent lack of ego has created a favourable impression in the construction industry, as has his willingness to get to grips with the occult world of Building Regulations.

Unlike his predecessor Chris Leslie, who held the regs portfolio for less than a year, Hope appears to be settled with the brief he took on in June 2004, just as sustainability became a hot political topic. Hardly a week goes by now without Tony Blair visiting a renewable energy facility or John Prescott making a speech bemoaning the unsustainablity of housebuilders. The passing of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill in September has increased the minister’s power, as he can use the Building Regulations to oblige the industry and landlords to improve the security and sustainability of their buildings.

The ODPM is eager to take advantage of the law and Hope says that regulations could include a category for security in two or three years. “We are in conversation with the Home Office to see what we could regulate in practical terms, such as window locks. Initial discussions are going well.”

There will be always be those people who are worried about the cost and the pace of change

For Hope’s department, it is a busy time.

The latest version of Part L, which deals with the energy efficiency of buildings, has to be published by summer 2005, and on 1 January 2006 the UK must comply with the European Union’s Energy Performance of Buildings directive, which demands that measures are in place to classify buildings for energy use. There’s also the small matter of formulating the Code for Sustainable Building before the ODPM’s Sustainable Communities Summit in January 2005. And then there’s the implementation of Part P, dealing with electrical safety in dwellings, in January, and numerous self-certification schemes to consider. Hope admits it’s a challenge for the regulators and the regulated.

Many in the industry are worried about the speed of change – particularly when it comes to implementing Part L, which still requires E E the formulation of complex methods of calculating energy use in non-domestic buildings before it is published next summer. “The ODPM better get this out f***ing fast, otherwise they will be shafted by industry in 18 months’ time,” one industry figure warns.

Hope acknowledges the industry’s concern but he and his colleagues appear unfazed by the tight timeframe. “I know the industry is worried about the non-domestic methodology, and we will try to come up with something at the earliest stage. There will be always be those people who are worried about the cost and the pace of change but when you get these things going there is an enthusiasm that builds up,” he says.

Hope’s office also brushes aside concerns over the lack of time for the training of services inspectors and building certifiers before the energy performance directive comes into force. One ODPM official explains that EU member states have three years to implement the inspection of services and provision of building certificates. “As time goes on, the amount of certification will increase. We’re currently deciding the pace of the roll out and what might be achievable. We’re going to be sensible about this,” he says.

Hope and his department are offering the industry help and concessions along the way to meet the deadlines for Part L and the EU directive. Advisory groups representing every facet of industry have been consulted on the proposed standards, and details of future performance requirements on the ODPM website have given industry plenty of forewarning of likely targets.

Hope is also planning to use the web to simplify compliance with Building Regulations. “Someone doing a loft conversion could find out what regulations applied and what technical solutions were available at the click of a button,” he says, excitedly. An industry insider adds that the ODPM is currently experimenting with an online calculations tool that would enable housebuilders to quickly check compliance.

There will be voluntary agreements at this stage. I'm feeling optimistic that the code will go down well with the industry

The ODPM has shown that it is willing to make compromises. For example, it responded to housebuilders’ pleas for self-regulation in Part E, which covers acoustic insulation. As a result, robust standard details were agreed. If a housebuilder installs those, it does not have to submit every scheme to compulsory, and potentially expensive, testing. Hope is keen on the philosophy. “I think RSDs have worked well. The system we’ve set up has been welcomed by industry and we’re currently looking at the extent to which we could apply it to Part L.”

Cynics would say that RSDs as a form of self-certification gets the government out of a hole, as there would not have been enough building control resources to check compliance. Handing building certificates to building control officers pre-signed by a competent person would lighten their workload.

Another potential compromise is Hope’s suggestion that the Code for Sustainable Buildings could be voluntary, at least to begin with. The code sets energy efficiency standards for new buildings in housing growth areas such as the Thames Gateway at 25% higher than those in Building Regulations. The idea of a code was put forward by the government’s Sustainable Buildings Task Group and it suggested enforcement should be by fiscal measures, planning conditions, regulations or voluntary agreements. For the time being, the ODPM has opted for the latter. “It is not a mandatory code,” says Hope. “There will be voluntary agreements at this stage. I’m feeling optimistic that the code will go down well – not least because it is being developed by the industry itself.”

Hope also believes that housebuilders will build more energy-efficient homes because customers will demand them. “It is attractive for a purchaser to know their home is energy efficient. The cost may add 1-3% to build costs but the payback is a 25% saving in energy costs for the homebuyer, so there is a financial incentive for them.”

Some in the industry would say that Hope is being rather optimistic. Housebuilders are notoriously bad at offering extras unless there is an immediate cost benefit. Still, the code could apply to buildings other than housing – not least public sector schemes. Hope hints that government buildings, which make up 30% of all new buildings, will be subject to the code. “If we are publishing the code it would make sense for government to comply with it,” he says.

It’s no surprise that Phil Hope is making concessions to the industry, considering the amount of rules and regulations his office is set to impose. His methods of gentle cajoling should not disguise his determination to drive his part of the government’s sustainable agenda. “This is not going to relent,” he warns. To succeed, the juggling minister may have to show his steelier side …

Going for the juggler ...

Phil Hope's juggling career started by chance when he was running a training course for shop stewards in Corby, Northamptonshire, where he is the local MP.

"It was a three-day course for negotiating skills and one of the trainees turned up with a rucksack full of juggling gear," remembers Hope. "During the coffee breaks and evenings he taught us how to juggle. I then joined the Balls Up Juggling Club in Corby, and haven’t looked back."

Hope is passionate about juggling. He can keep four balls up at the same time, pass between a fellow jugglers and has a bag of tricks that matches the diversity of his portfolio. (As well as overseeing Building Regulations he is the green minister at the ODPM, E-Champion, responsible for the local government pension scheme, fire safety and the fire service college, regulatory reform and public sector reform.)

Hope says that his busy schedule prevents him from juggling as much as he used to but occasionally he manages to juggle juggling and work. "I've worked up a political juggling routine," he says. "I start with one ball, which represents the one-party state, add other, which is the Whigs, a third is the Labour party; SDP is the fourth, and then when UKip turn up, it's five and whoops, you’re buggered."