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Will energy efficiency be left out in the cold this General Election?

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Looking through the three main political parties’ manifestos for some signs of life on the building energy efficiency agenda can be a thankless task, but they are there if you look hard enough. Another thing that’s buried in the Conservative manifesto is a bold, to say the least, claim to have met their aspirations to be the greenest government ever, despite rolling back many green programmes. Headline talk of green innovation has however been quietly put to bed, a casualty of austerity and as well as a lack of sustainability of political nerve perhaps.

Who will win this Election, and what ‘winning’ means in these days of multi-party politics, is very much up in the air. However if the Conservatives hang on to power, the industry will hope they carry out their Manifesto pledge, cowed by austerity though it is, to “support low-cost measures on energy efficiency” against a goal of insulating a million more homes over the next five years. However as well as lacking any detail, this also raises the spectre of hundreds of projects to upgrade lofts and cavity walls, and a failure to even scratch the surface of the 7 million solid walled and hard to treat properties we must urgently address.

Labour offers some detail on incentives for homeowners, such as its policies for interest free loans for 1 million energy upgrades, and 200,000 new build homes for low income families. The party’s manifesto also contains a welcome commitment to making private landlords engage in energy efficiency, but a disappointing lack of detail on how it might do this. Ed Milliband says that he wants to make energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority, and to insulate 5 million homes over 10 years, but the jury is out on his party’s commitment to genuinely see this through.

The one party that still seems to be explicitly flying the green flag for its own sake, with separate sections on Climate Change – including ‘Green Homes’ – and the Environment in its manifesto, is the Lib Dems. Their Five Green Laws are claimed to be at the heart of the party’s manifesto, and they include a Green Buildings Act, incorporating a sensible-sounding ‘Pay as You Save’ loans scheme. This will fund renewable heat and electricity alongside energy efficiency improvements. Also, their pledge to tackle solid wall properties using a ‘Feed Out Tariff’ to enable the fuel poor to fund insulation improvements is one of the best ideas I have heard yet for meeting this tough challenge. A statutory commitment to bring all fuel poor households up to be band C by 2027 appears to not only be reasonable, but well timed too.

The big question is how effective will such policies be in practice. Of course, the less detail you give at the outset means that you have the most leeway in terms of claiming the goals have been met. The Lib Dems may have shot themselves in the foot in this regard, although I applaud their ambition. Timescales are important, and I think theirs looks achievable, but only if the political will is sustained. The other end of the problem is user engagement and I think that the Green Deal has failed because of the lack of an appropriate carrot and stick approach. There is a huge job remaining to be done.

The energy supply side is still getting a disproportionate amount of attention, with parties putting a lot of focus on empowering renewables providers at the expense of the crucial, yet challenging issue of putting fabric first. Installing the right insulation is at the core of improving the health of buildings and occupants, the health of occupiers’ bank balances, and importantly, the health of the construction sector. Putting the lion’s share of effort into renewables will only allow more overseas companies to capitalise on the UK market, and is ultimately too limited an approach to be a national success.

The long view is the correct view. If we truly are to make energy efficiency an infrastructure priority (and until it’s valued alongside transport improvements we won’t see substantive change), then it needs to be a 10 year plus approach. The five year political telescope is far too short to instigate the improvements needed, in fact such ambitions are nonsensical. Insulating the nation’s buildings should be a given for political parties, and be free of the arbitrary timescales of elections and administrations. Energy efficiency should be a seen as one of the most important ways of fuelling prosperity for the future.