Home Information Packs were a great opportunity for government to stop talking and start doing something about energy waste but it looks like they've blown it, says Mike Malina of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association (HVCA)*.
THERE was a sad irony in Ruth Kelly's high profile announcement late last year that by 2009 all buildings - residential and commercial - would have to display an energy performance certificate when they are built, sold and rented out.
This was dressed up as the secretary of state for communities and local government making a firm commitment to a robust strategy for tackling climate change. In reality it was no such thing.
Energy certificates for buildings are a requirement of the European Union's Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and if our government fails, yet again, to meet its legal obligations under the Directive it will get a very painful, bloody nose and a big fine.
This government is very good at announcing policies and strategies on climate change but it has no track record on enforcing them. Home Information Packs (HIPs), which come into force this June, are a case in point. These could have been the cornerstone of a meaningful strategy for finally getting to grips with energy inefficiency in existing homes but government caved in under intense pressure from the property industry and made the main section of the HIP voluntary.
While the energy certificate remains mandatory - because government has no choice in the matter under the EPBD - the Home Condition Report (HCR), which was designed as the central element of the pack, is now voluntary, putting the effectiveness of the whole policy in jeopardy.
Human nature being what it is, we know very few people will opt to spend the extra money on anything voluntary especially when it comes to moving house - an experience already made cripplingly expensive by the insane rules applied to stamp duty and legal charges in this country. As a result, many estate agents are predicting that energy certificates too will be allowed to wither away quietly because it is going to be hard to find anyone prepared to carry out the necessary work.
When the full HIP was in place, a whole army of home inspectors were in training because of the promised lucrative workload.
Sadly, following the big U-turn the job is no longer that appealing. At between £550 and £900 for a full HIP, there was a clear market for individuals and companies to set themselves up to do this work. Now they are looking at something closer to £75 or £100 for an energy certificate, which will only be viable if the inspector is able to get round four or five houses in a day - and how feasible is that?
Government is clearly making this up as it goes along and now finds itself rushing the inspection regime despite having had years to sort out its thinking. How it plans to extend the scheme to the commercial sector is anyone's guess, but Ruth Kelly says it will happen in two years time!
Government is thrashing around looking for solutions and there is real merit in the philosophy behind energy certificates, even if the implementation is a mess. It is in everyone's interests that we have some kind of system able to tackle energy in homes. So how about we give Ms Kelly and her gang a helping hand?
Gas and electricity prices are between four and five times higher in the UK than the rest of Europe, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The average gas bill rose by 39.8% and electricity by 27.3% in Britain last year while consumers in the rest of Europe saw their prices moving up by just 10.6% and 5% respectively.
Higher pricing of fossil fuels is a good way to force people to use less, but it is also clear that our utilities are profiteering. Therefore, why doesn't government force them to return some of that profit in the shape of grants to householders prepared to invest in improving the energy efficiency of their homes?
Also, local authorities are falling over themselves to provide modest grants towards cavity wall insulation, which again benefits firms like British Gas which get the contracts to fit it.
Why not be bolder and actually reduce council tax bills for houses that score higher when assessed for their energy certificate, so creating an incentive to improve all the elements of a home that contribute to carbon emissions and get the companies who profit from all this work to pay the difference?
It is time for some radical measures. After all HIPs were created to do two things: help improve the energy efficiency of our housing and give housebuyers better quality information about the property they are intending to buy. At the moment, the current HIP 'fudge' will singularly fail to do either.
*Mike Malina is a member of the HVCA's Sustainability Issues Group and head of the Energy Management Division at Commtech.