Lord Redesdale (LD)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foster for introducing this Bill. Looking around the House at those taking part in this debate, it seems to be a very small group who have been undertaking this work for, in some cases, decades. I remember raising the issue with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when he was a Minister, which was some time ago. I must declare an interest as CEO of the Energy Managers Association and as a landowner, as set out in the register.
Although my noble friend Lord Foster has said that this is a simple Bill, the problems associated with the language are anything but. I always have difficulty with the expression “fuel poverty”, because it mixes the cost of fuel and the use of fuel. One problem we have of course is that, if the price of gas is low, then fuel poverty is seen as less of an issue, but fuel expenditure increases because people raise the temperature in their houses. This is not to denigrate the issue of fuel poverty; in fact, it was brought to me in stark relief when one of my tenants came to me to say that they were paying more year on year on their energy bill than on their rent. There was of course a simple solution—though not the solution that immediately springs to mind for many private landlords—which was to look at how I could increase the energy efficiency of the building. It was a complicated building to look at, being in a rural area and having been built over a number of centuries, but I realised that work needed to be undertaken. We did that work, but of course it had a 14-year payback compared with the rent. This is an issue that landlords often face. I believe there is an obligation on landlords that, if they cannot afford to rent out a property and the works, they should not own the property in the first place. That is a fundamental issue: we should not be pushing fuel poverty as an excuse.
There are ways of bringing properties up to standard, but there are a couple of issues that I raise in association with this Bill that will have to be addressed by the Government. The first is that, if we are to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, we will obviously have to look at the energy performance certificate. I remember when the legislation brought in that certificate in the first place; it is an excellent tool as far as it goes. The problem is that it was built around Part L at the time and really needs to be updated to reflect the movement that has taken place in terms of building materials—as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, pointed out—and the greater understanding of the use of buildings and what is possible. The EPC rating has been added to estate agents’ particulars—I remember putting it forward in a Private Member’s Bill, but it was put through in regulations by the Minister at the time, Yvette Cooper, even though there is apparently no such thing in law as estate agents’ particulars. The rating was added for houses being sold by estate agents, which is an important point. The rating sets out where the building is now but also the potential that the building can achieve. For a lot of older buildings, which is unfortunately the majority of our housing stock, the potential is in many cases way below the C or B rating that we would be looking for in the future. We have to look either at replacing a large proportion of the housing stock or at how we rate buildings and make sure that they get up to the highest possible level, without making the targets almost impossible to achieve.
There are number of things you can do, especially on older buildings. You can replace the boiler, which is a major element; you can replace double glazing. The latter is a problem which the Government are going to have to address head on and have discussions with Historic England about. English Heritage—I had many discussions with them—and now Historic England are trying to preserve wooden windows because of the look of buildings. However, we should start looking at modern materials mimicking those used in the past. Trying to replace wooden windows is a major problem. Ones you buy now are meant to be of sufficient quality, but they often rot out in five to 10 years. There is a carbon cost associated with that which probably negates the energy you are saving. I hope the Government will have discussions with the relevant bodies on how we should go forward with buildings. A classic example is this building, which is grade 1 listed. I have had discussions with the House authorities on the leaded windows, from which the heat dissipates through the single frame and the lead. Hardly any of them fit properly and there are enormous drafts. The only thing worse than lead is brass. Many of the windows in this building have their joints fitted with that material.
There are always exceptions, but a lot of people go down the rabbit hole of using historic buildings as an excuse for not implementing many of the energy efficiency ratings. However, you can introduce a lot of measures without detrimentally affecting the fabric of the building. As this is a Private Member’s Bill, I should direct this to my noble friend Lord Foster, but I hope the Minister will indicate whether the EPC rating is being looked at and whether Part L is still fit for purpose. A review of it against our climate change commitments would probably be the most beneficial step that could be taken. I remember having arguments about whether we should regulate for boilers at G rating and below to be outlawed and condensing boilers brought in. That single measure has had a greater impact on gas use in this country than any other. Part L is difficult. I remember discussing regulating this with DCLG, which argued that there was an embedded cost in the boiler itself which replacing the boiler could bring about in the carbon whole-life cycle. We did the work with Worcester Bosch and found that under 2% of the energy cost is in the boiler itself, rather than the fuel used. There would be a benefit in looking at Part L. This feeds across to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben. 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.
The Bill is such a cornucopia of issues that I could go on for hours, but my final point is that the Government should look at cavity wall insulation, which is a scandal waiting to happen. If put in properly, it is of massive benefit to the thermal properties of a house. However, there is more and more evidence that a lot of cavity wall insulation has been put in badly so that it soaks up water, makes the house damp and reduces its thermal properties. The problem with insulation is very large and has not been addressed. A lot of the smaller companies who put in badly installed insulation have gone bankrupt or are not covered. This issue is coming down the line and will cause problems to a lot of householders. I spoke to a company whose main work is sucking out old cavity wall insulation and replacing it. That is an industry that we should not have. This comes back to regulation on how insulation is put in in the first place.
I welcome the Bill. Unfortunately, my noble friend Lord Foster will hardly be surprised if it is not taken up with open arms. He has been too long in the game for that. It was depressing, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, how many debates there have been on this and the how many pledges broken. I will have been in this House for 30 years next year. I started being involved in energy almost as soon as I arrived. It was assumed, 30 years ago, that we would have passive houses built as standard. It was assumed that the retro-fit which took place in properties would have been at a much higher level over that period. We are now looking to catch up in 10 years, to make that happen. I am not sure that the target is achievable, but if we do not undertake the basics at this point, it never will be.