Queen’s speech: win on plastic bags, lose on zero-carbon homes

Despite affirming "My ministers champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change", the final Queen's speech before the next general election was decidedly thin when it came to action on sustainability and the environment.

Good news came in the form of a commitment to reduce single-use plastic bag consumption – confirmation that the 5p plastic bag levy is to be introduced in England, a move announced by Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat conference back in September last year.

The levy will not be introduced until 2015, after the next general election and will only apply to Supermarkets and larger stores employing more than 250 people.

Zero Carbon homes

However, green housing was dealt a blow with the news of the introduction of ‘allowable solutions’ for zero carbon housing. This means, developers will not be required to meet the highest levels of energy efficiency on larger projects, instead being offered the option of off-setting by paying into alternative green schemes, or ‘allowable solutions’. The rate is likely to be between £38 and £90 per tonne of carbon.

Smaller housing developments will also be exempt, despite previous pledges that all new homes in the UK will be built to a zero carbon standard by 2016.

Commenting on the announcement, REA chief executive Dr Nina Skorupska said: “The Government is so desperate to get lots of houses built quickly that they seem blind to the opportunity to give these new homes super low energy bills. Instead, the occupants will probably have to foot the bill for the new tax.

“The Lib Dems are celebrating this as a green victory, but in reality it’s one of the worst row-backs on green policy of the whole Coalition Government. First emissions from TVs and kettles were excluded, then DCLG started dismantling existing new build energy efficiency policies, and now they are focusing on offsets and hefty exemptions. Our energy bills, our climate and the domestic renewable energy supply chain will all lose out as a result.”

WF-UK climate and energy specialist Zoe Leader added: “It is incredibly disappointing that the Government is allowing such a get-out for developers.

“Reducing the environmental impact of our housing is critical for meeting our carbon emission obligations and helping keep customer energy bills down. Today’s announcement is a lose-lose situation for the environment and for people.”

UK Green Building Council chief executive Paul King, however, had a more pragmatic view: “The Coalition will laud their green credentials by claiming to have delivered on the promise for all new homes to be zero carbon from 2016. This has undoubtedly been hard-won by the Lib Dems, but unfortunately they are at risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by letting small developments – a large chunk of the housebuilding market – off the hook. Zero carbon homes save a fortune for households in energy costs and are better for the environment.

“However, the policy of allowing developers to pay into a fund to offset emissions they cannot reduce is a sound idea in principle, despite its lukewarm reception this week. If implemented properly, this could lead to investment in local, community energy schemes and drive innovation in clean technology. On the other hand, a weak scheme, that generates little investment that has no connection to the housebuilding which is taking place, would be a deeply disappointing outcome.”

The government has previously been criticised for its lack of decisive action on zero carbon homes legislation. And as recently as March this year, communities secretary Eric Pickles was described as hindering zero carbon housing with a ‘zeal for deregulation.

Tresspass reform and fracking

The speech also made a fleeting reference to shale gas and geothermal power production and how the Inrastructure Bill will facilitate their exploitation. The reference is to proposed reform to trespass laws, as part of the Infrastructure Bill, that would allow fracking firms to run gas pipes under private property without obtaining prior permission. However, planning permission would still be needed before companies could drill for shale gas.

The announcement has met with outrage from environmental lobbyists and anti-fracking groups, but follows a clear commitment to shale gas from the current government. The Prime Minister has previously dismissed concerns over fracking as irrational.

Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale described the move as a ‘bungs and bulldozers’ approach, saying: “As ministers chase their imaginary energy Eldorado, the real solutions to boost our energy security, like slashing energy waste and backing renewables, are being sidelined. We’ll all pay a price for their shale craze.”

edie staff

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie