What do the manifestos have to say about building, energy and climate policy?
By guest blogger, Mike Hannis.
Welcome to this series of posts on the 2017 General Election manifestos, and thanks to Andy Simmonds for inviting me to write them. The aim is to separate out the parties’ concrete commitments from their plentiful rhetoric, focussing primarily on areas of interest to AECB members. In particular this will mean decoding what they have to say about building, energy and climate policy.
I won’t be speculating on the parties’ chances of success, offering any advice on how to vote, or digressing too far into other policy areas except where relevant to the core concerns mentioned above. I’ll try not to editorialise too much as this is not intended as a platform for my own views, many of which you can find online elsewhere. In my day job, I’m a Lecturer in Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University. I’m also an editor and feature writer at The Land magazine, and have in the past worked in planning consultancy and outdoor event management. I’m not professionally involved in construction, though I do live off-grid in a dwelling I built myself.
Labour: Government to the Rescue?
Headlines about the 2017 Labour manifesto largely focussed on ridiculing ‘old-fashioned and unaffordable’ proposals for robust government intervention in the economy. You wouldn’t know it from the coverage, but in fact policies such as taking the railways, Post Office and energy distribution back into public ownership consistently enjoy broad public support. They hark back to a time when there was a broad consensus around the merits of public ownership and a mixed economy. In this sense perhaps ‘a return to the 1970s’ might not be such a bad thing.
On both energy and housing this interventionist spirit underpins some bold and positive proposals. The party’s broader environmental and climate policies are also good, though their radicalism is inevitably limited by the continued pursuit of economic growth. Viewed in this light the manifesto is old-fashioned, though no more so than any other party except perhaps the Greens. From an environmentalist perspective there are quite a few goodies in here, though also a few clangers and missed opportunities.
Housing issues feature prominently. A new Department for Housing would oversee plans to ‘invest to build over a million new homes’, building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale’ by the end of the next Parliament. These figures suggest that market housing would be intended to add a further 100,000 a year.
On the face of it this seems an impressive commitment. Local authorities would be empowered to build, with an end to restrictions on council house building, and the suspension of the right to buy (except where like for like replacement can be demonstrated). The reinvigoration of public sector building would involve a ‘National Transformation Fund’, presumably funded as part of the commitment to take advantage of current historically low interest rates to ‘borrow for investment’. More powers and resources are promised for hard-pressed local authority planners, to ensure both that planning backlogs don’t hold up the building programme, and that development is appropriately located. Brownfield sites would be ‘prioritised’, and greenbelt development ‘avoided’. The routine use of leasehold in new developments would be stopped, and insecurity in the private rented sector alleviated by ‘making new 3-year tenancies the norm’, and capping rent rises.
So what about the environmental performance of all these new houses? The final manifesto promises to ‘consult on new rules on minimum space standards to prevent ‘rabbit hutch’ properties and on new modern standards for building ‘zero carbon homes’’. The earlier draft was slightly more explicit, promising to ‘legislate to enforce the highest modern standards for zero carbon buildings that generate as much energy on site as they use in heating, hot water and lighting’.
This suggests an intention to scrap the controversial ‘allowable solutions’ modification of the Sustainable Homes Code, which currently allows a percentage of a Level 6 ‘zero carbon’ building’s emissions to be offset elsewhere rather than by onsite power generation. This would be welcome. Perhaps more importantly though, the manifesto does not make clear which buildings would have to be zero carbon. Is this a commitment to bring back the requirement for all new homes to be built to Level 6? If so, this would clearly be very good news for green builders, as well as for the climate.
In 2016 Jeremy Corbyn explicitly endorsed building social housing to Passivhaus standards (at 1’37”). It is unclear to what extent this is now party policy, but the current manifesto does closely echo much of what Corbyn promised on energy and environment during his party leadership campaigns (discussed in a previous Soapbox). It seems clear that Labour is taking building performance seriously, and the promised consultation would be very welcome.
On retrofitting, the manifesto contains a target to ‘insulate four million homes’, mainly by offering homeowners interest free loans to improve their property. This would be a great improvement on the punitive interest rates available under the Green Deal. There are also cases where bringing back straightforward grants for energy efficiency measures would be appropriate though, and the laudable commitment to ‘insulate the homes of disabled service veterans for free’ could perhaps have been extended to other groups.
On rented housing, alongside ‘new legal minimum standards to ensure properties are fit for human habitation and empower tenants to take action if their rented homes are substandard’, there is also a promise to ‘improve Landlord Energy Efficiency regulations and re-establish the Landlord Energy Saving Allowance to encourage the uptake of efficiency measures’. Perhaps it would make sense here to explicitly include specific targets for environmental performance in the definition of ‘fit for habitation’?
The manifesto’s headline commitment on energy is to ‘ensure that 60% of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030.’ This is a challenging and welcome target, but the measures proposed may not be sufficient to meet it. The party wants to ban fracking because it ‘would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels’ but also promises to ‘safeguard the offshore oil and gas industry’. Controversially it also offers full support to building new nuclear power stations. There are clear signs here of internal tensions in the party, not least between environmentalists and certain unions.
Labour does not propose to nationalise energy generation as simplistically as has been presented in the press. In fact the manifesto contains a sophisticated and non-confrontational proposal to establish ‘publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers, with at least one in every region’. Alongside these publicly owned energy suppliers will be a new Local Energy Task Force, to ‘provide help and advice for local people and businesses to start up Community Energy Cooperatives.’
Neither of these policies are explicitly about renewables, and they are framed more in terms of the benefits of public and community ownership. But they are presumably designed at least in part to facilitate the shift to renewable energy, since ‘community energy projects’ are mainly renewables projects, as are the newly emerging municipal energy projects.
The manifesto shies away from explicit support for any particular renewable technology, apart (oddly) from tidal lagoons. Why not for instance promise some proper assistance for the solar industry, which was doing so well until feed-in tariffs were prematurely slashed?
Environment and Climate
Labour promises domestically to ‘put us back on track to meet the targets in the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement’, and internationally to ‘reclaim Britain’s leading role in tackling climate change, working hard to preserve the Paris Agreement’. In the age of Trump, this is important.
For a long and (in parts) detailed manifesto, the dedicated section on environmental policy is strikingly short. There are a few clear and welcome promises though, such as a ban on neonicotinoids (urgently needed to help bees), and an end to badger culling. A new Clean Air Act is promised to address air pollution. As long as it has teeth, such an Act would represent a bold and much needed move.
On transport, the popular and forward-looking proposal to renationalise rail (gradually, as current route franchises expire) is accompanied by a promise of investment in much needed track infrastructure. Some other promises of ‘more infrastructure’ may be less warmly welcomed by many environmentalists, such as the commitment to extend HS2 to Scotland, and the strong support for further roadbuilding and continued airport expansion.
A less headline-grabbing policy on buses seems straightforward and sensible, promising ‘regulations to designate and protect routes of critical community value’, allowing bus services to be determined by need rather than profitability and (in the earlier draft) allowing the re-establishment of municipal bus companies.
On the future of European environmental regulations, the party promise to ‘make sure that all EU-derived laws that are of benefit’ are ‘fully protected’ after Brexit, and commits to ‘no rolling back of key rights and protections’. This is very welcome, though somewhat lacking in detail, and those interested in particular EU Directives will await further clarification. There is little discussion of how leaving the EU might affect any of the aspirations expressed elsewhere in the manifesto, including those discussed here. This is unfortunate, but understandable given the party’s efforts to keep both ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ on board.
Training and Business
Labour promise an ambitious ‘free cradle to grave learning’ strategy, from free school meals for all, to bringing back the Education Maintenance Allowance for teenagers, to abolishing university tuition fees. This includes ‘free, lifelong education in Further Education colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at any point in life’, and also improvements to apprenticeship schemes. It seems clear that this could be very positive for anyone providing training in areas such as green building or renewables installation.
Overall the manifesto is positioned as favouring small businesses while standing up to the power of large companies. For instance corporation tax is to be raised significantly, but small businesses protected from this by bringing back the lower ‘small profit rate’, and by other measures including scrapping quarterly reporting.
There is a commitment to introduce stronger environmental duties for businesses by amending the Companies Act. Mainly though, the party seeks to improve the behaviour of large companies by using government purchasing power, rather than direct regulation. Firms getting government contracts will have to meet environmental standards and pay their suppliers within 30 days. These measures could potentially be highly beneficial for construction subcontractors working on the promised council house building programme.
Overall, it remains an open question whether a Labour government would be able to reconcile its fairly conventional commitment to growth and infrastructure with its acknowledgement of the need to decarbonise and move towards a far more resource efficient and healthy society. Certainly the manifesto has a strong focus on repairing the social fabric and redressing inequality, and given its commitment to the Paris Agreement and the Climate Change Act targets, it perhaps represents as ‘Green’ a manifesto as could currently be expected from a major UK political party.
Read blog number 2 here – Conservative manifesto.
Read blog number 3 here – Green Party manifesto.