Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing the debate. Although such positions are not declarable on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I ought to say that I am a vice-president of the Association for Decentralised Energy, formerly the Combined Heat and Power Association. The position I hold reflects my long-standing interest in district heating and local energy schemes, which I have maintained throughout my time in Parliament, which is now a very long time. I will mention briefly in my comments my interest in these schemes and arrangements.
I was not sure what the thrust of the debate was going to be, but I anticipated that it would probably be about the concerns that some Members have expressed over time about circumstances relating to the operation of some, but by no means all, district heating schemes. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), I have expressed concerns about that, and I have put forward remedies for those concerns over a number of years in this House.
I think district heating will be an important part of our approach to the decarbonisation of heating. It certainly has a substantial part to play, under particular circumstances and in particular areas, in delivering low carbon heat reliably and satisfactorily to populations. At its heart, it is a system about networks, not about what goes into the networks. A variety of different forms of fuel can go into the network and deliver heat very efficiently. It is not just about taking heat from incinerators. It has much wider applications through heat engines or through low-carbon sources of energy that can be a part of a network. The network can adapt and change over time.
The efficient use of heat that this represents has been rolled out much more in other parts of Europe than has been the case in the UK. I visited Denmark a little while ago, which has more than 50% of its total heat provided by district heating schemes, and in Copenhagen it is about 90%. They are well-regulated schemes with a very low level of complaints and a very high level of delivery and efficiency, and they generate affordable heat in the process.
My city of Southampton now has five district heating schemes within the city boundary, including the nation’s only geothermally heated district heating scheme, which I often draw attention to. That demonstrates that the fuel types for heat schemes can be very different. Where the schemes are well run, there are few complaints and they continue to deliver affordable and, in this instance, low-carbon energy to the city.
That is one side of the coin. The other side is what happens with the schemes that already exist, and indeed have existed for a long time and have different forms of ownership and input. I am pleased that the Government have recently woken up to the potential of district heating. Through the green heat network fund and various other things, they will be providing money and support, mainly for local authority-based schemes, to bring forward district heating in the future, but I am well aware that the good schemes that may be brought about in the future are by no means the whole picture of district heating across the country. There are currently about 2,000 schemes in the country, which produce something like 2% of domestic, public sector and commercial heat demand, and supply just over 200,000 buildings and almost 2,000 commercial and public buildings across the UK.
As we have heard, a proportion of those 2,000 schemes are not well run at all, frankly, and for various reasons they have produced a bad deal for customers. Indeed, in some instances, because of the age of the system, there has not been any investment in the system and they are producing very inefficiently. In some instances, because of a frequent change in private ownership, they have simply been starved of the sort of investment they need to run at a good level, and there has not been the level of customer care that there should have been in the systems over the period. The points that hon. Members made about their local schemes are well founded. It is up to us to recognise that that is the case and to do something about it; otherwise, the next generation of district heating schemes, which will be essential, will not be well founded, as far as their operation is concerned, for the future.
The Government have sort of recognised over the years that that is a problem, but I am afraid they have not done very well by customers in those circumstances. Until relatively recently, they considered that regulation should not be statutory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, but that it should be entirely voluntary and done on the basis of an industry scheme. The 2013 paper “The future of heating: meeting the challenge” stated:
“The Government does not want to stop the growth of the sector through introducing unnecessary regulation. DECC is therefore initially seeking an industry-led scheme”.
Up to relatively recently, that was the position of the Government over a long period.
A heroic effort to do just that was introduced by the Combined Heat and Power Association, now the ADE, through the Heat Trust, which, in its own right, is a good scheme. Of course, as hon. Members have mentioned, it is entirely voluntary. If schemes do not want to join it, they do not have to—a lot have not. The redress is strictly limited to those people who are already likely to be the good guys in the first place, and not those that are, perhaps, the most egregious underperformers as far as the overall system is concerned.
Fair play to the Government, who have recognised that that system is not the right way to go about regulation for the future. In spring last year, we had the “Heat networks: building a market framework” consultation, which set out a scheme for universal regulation —not a perfect scheme, but a scheme nevertheless. We had that consultation, introduced last February and concluded last summer—and have heard nothing whatsoever since. There has been no Government response or discussion of how the very sketchy scheme set out in the original consultation could be improved and assured as a universal scheme, both retrospectively and prospectively, for district heating.
In the end, we only have one line on the subject in the energy White Paper:
“We intend to legislate in this Parliament for the regulation of heat networks to protect
consumers and reduce carbon emissions.”
That is a fine ambition, but hon. Members will notice that the proposal is to legislate in this Parliament on something that we do not know the content of because there has been no comeback from the consultation on what a scheme might be. Should we legislate in this Parliament, say at the very end, there will inevitably be a time lag in bringing a scheme to fruition, and we could be well into the end of this decade before we get the sort of regulation that we clearly need. I guess the Minister is going to make some considerable play of the fact that the Government intend to legislate, but, frankly, that really is not good enough. As I say, we do not know what this regulation will consist of, how universal it will be, what redress will be in it, how legally enforceable it will be and how it will shape new networks, or retrospectively encompass all existing networks.
Finally, a vague suggestion that we might legislate sometime in this Parliament, with a possibly extended implementation date, does not answer the issues that hon. Members have raised in any coherent and satisfying way. First, we need to get the response to the consultation out as soon as possible, so people are much clearer about what it is we might be considering, and if they think it is insufficient, they can talk about how better to deal with the issues mentioned in that regulation in a satisfactory and comprehensive way.
Secondly, we need a commitment from the Minister this afternoon that she will not just rest on the idea that there might be legislation some time in this Parliament, but that she will go away this afternoon and get writing that legislation—not personally, necessarily, but with the support of some of her colleagues and civil servants in BEIS— and get that through Parliament as quickly as possible. That means next year. I know the Minister is close to being a miracle worker in her position, but if she can achieve that over the next period she will certainly have my full support.