UK government’s green homes grant in urgent need of rescue, MPs say

The UK government’s flagship home insulation scheme, intended to kickstart a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, has been botched, disastrous in administration, devastating in some of its impacts, and stands in urgent need of rescue, an influential committee of MPs has said.

Fiona Harvey

Their outspoken criticism is a blow to the government’s plans for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and comes as ministers prepare to host vital UN climate talks – called Cop26 – in Glasgow this November.

There can be little chance of meeting the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 without a comprehensive programme to insulate Britain’s 19m draughty homes and switch from gas boilers to low-CO2 heating, the environmental audit committee of MPs said on Monday.

But they delivered a damning assessment of the green homes grant, launched last summer to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating, and demanded urgent action from ministers. They said the scheme was “rushed in conception and poorly implemented … [the] scheme administration appears nothing short of disastrous”.

They added: “The impact of its botched implementation has had devastating consequences on many of the builders and installers that can do the work, who have been left in limbo as a result of the orders cancelled and time taken to approve applications.”

Far from generating green jobs as the government promised, some businesses offering home upgrades were having to lay off staff because of payment problems.

There were more than 123,000 applications for the grant by the end of February, according to data released last week by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but only 28,000 vouchers had been issued and only 5,800 measures had been installed.

More than £1bn is estimated to be unspent from the public money allocated to the end of March, which the government now intends to keep back, while allocating only £320m to next year. The environmental audit committee demanded the unspent money should be rolled over instead and the scheme overhauled and turned into a viable long-term grant scheme that would give households and businesses the confidence to embark on renovation work.

Philip Dunne, chair of the committee, said action was urgently needed to avoid further damage to the green homes industry, and start the vital task of refitting the UK’s draughty housing stock.

“Further schemes that endure must be rolled out, boosting the government’s credibility with householders and their contractors, that it is determined to decarbonise the nation’s homes,” he said. “This will give confidence to businesses that they can invest in upskilling and green jobs … Realism needs to be injected into the government. A much better understanding of cost, pace, scale and feasibility of skills development is desperately needed for net zero Britain.”

Ed Matthew, campaigns director at the climate change thinktank E3G, said: “The committee has hit the nail on the head. The industry has been damaged by stop-start schemes and short-term funding, which destroys investment and undermines consumer confidence. The Treasury has to make this the UK’s number-one infrastructure priority and provide the long-term funding it needs. There is no other public investment that can do more to boost jobs while cutting carbon emissions.”

Under the green homes grant, homeowners can apply for vouchers for up to £5,000, or £10,000, to cover most of the cost of installing insulation and other energy efficiency measures, and low-CO2 heat pumps. But the scheme has been dogged with problems from the outset, with builders complaining of the bureaucracy involved in registering for the scheme, while tens of thousands of homeowners have been frustrated in their applications.

The scheme is administered by a company in the US, and the Guardian has found numerous instances of people unable to get a response from customer services, or given conflicting advice, while builders have complained that heat pump installations in particular have been stymied by the rules.

The government has responded by claiming that people are being put off the scheme by fear of having tradespeople in their homes during the pandemic. Campaigners have rejected that claim, saying the 120,000 applications show people want the grants but cannot get them. Home heating accounts for about 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit thinktank, said it was crucial for the government to act as the UK prepared to host Cop26. She said: “Despite government talking a good game on net zero, it is clear this is failing to manifest into action to cut carbon from our homes. Rushed policies that are chopped and changed seemingly at random risk undermining public enthusiasm for fixing up our leaky homes, damage that could harm future schemes for years to come.”

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 8 March

South Somerset District Council lose “Finance Director”

This morning South Somerset District Council announced another resignation from the senior management team.

by Andrew Lee 

Yesterday we reported the resignation of Jo Nacy. Jo had been in post as S151 officer (Finance Director if you will) for just on a year. Cllr Peter Seib took issue with our reporting. He told us our report on her resignation “makes it sound like a scandal and recent. In SSDC’s case it is neither”. It may not be recent, we cannot comment on that. What we can say is that SSDC councillors were not informed until yesterday. In a circular email from Nicola Hix. Which if the resignation occurred some time ago, will have been disappointing.

The new s151 officer at SSDC will be Karen Watling. She joins SSDC “with a vast amount of local authority experience, and is looking forward to working with us all.” Which is exactly what Jo Nacy would have said a year ago.

Meanwhile this morning Alex Parmley announced the resignation of Martin Woods. Mr Woods has been nothing if not loyal having served the council since 1980. These days a rare and fine record of public service. Mr Woods is/was one of 6 directors of SSDC working directly with CEO Alex Parmley.

Confused situation in Somerset with regard to changes in senior officers – see also:

Councillor broke rules by using ‘obscene language’ on Facebook

A Devon councillor has been found guilty of breaking conduct rules by swearing on Facebook.

Edward Oldfield

An investigation was carried out by Torbay Council after a complaint by a member of the public about “obscene language” in public posts made by Jack Dart, a councillor for Ellacombe in Torquay.

They included a description of the former leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage as a w***er, and using the phrase “F**k Brexit & F**k Boris” – a reference to the prime minister Boris Johnson.

Cllr Dart also described the Government as w*****s and Brexit as a “f***ing disaster”.

Expressing support for Joe Biden in the US presidential election, Cllr Dart described former President Trump as a “f***ing moron” who had put people’s lives at risk and had been “s**t for jobs”.

The 26-year-old Liberal Democrat is a co-founder of Inspire EU, a youth-led group which campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union.

In November, Cllr Dart published a post on Facebook explaining his use of swear words, saying: “A few people have messaged me to express upset at my language. It’s how I express myself, so I’m afraid it’ll continue long into the future.”

He added: “For those who are here regardless, I have a message for you! F**K TRUMP. BIDEN 2020! Turn the whole f***ing place blue!”

The words were spelled out in full in Cllr Dart’s posts, but letters have been replaced with asterisks in this report as some people may find them offensive.

Torbay Council’s monitoring officer carried out an investigation following a complaint in December by Torquay resident Drew Taylor.

Mr Taylor provided screenshots of the messages he said used obscene language.

The monitoring officer decided that Cllr Dart’s conduct breached the members code of conduct as it “fell short of the high standards” expected from councillors.

The code sets out how councillors’ behaviour should avoid bringing their office or the council into disrepute.

The officer recommended Cllr Dart deleted the Facebook posts, stopped using “obscene language” on social media, wrote a letter of apology, and attended a meeting to give an assurance he was aware of the requirements of the code of conduct.

The councillor’s Facebook page, which has the title “JACK DART LIBERAL DEMOCRAT COUNCILLOR – CO-FOUNDER INSPIRE EU”, has more than 28,000 likes and more than 33,000 followers.

The councillor, who works in social media marketing and is studying for a law degree, said he would stop using swear words on social media, but did not plan to take any further action.

Jack Dart, councillor for Ellacombe in Torquay, on Torbay Council

Jack Dart, councillor for Ellacombe in Torquay, on Torbay Council (Image: Jack Dart/Facebook)

He said he had been unaware before being contacted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he had been found in breach of the code of conduct, but said he may have missed an email due to ongoing connection problems with the iPad issued to councillors for official communications.

He said he used strong language to connect with the younger generation, and it was not unusual on social media to see swear words. He had used them on social media for several years, but had moderated his language since becoming a councillor at the age of 24 in 2019.

He said he felt it was important as a young councillor to connect with younger voters using language they used, and he did not want to become a ‘robotic’ politician. He said he did not intend to offend anyone, but accepted swear words might upset some people.

The councillor said he worked hard to represent his constituents and always behaved respectfully in meetings, but the context of social media was different and swearing was more acceptable.

He said: “If people are genuinely upset by the language I am using, I am happy to reduce the swearing on my Facebook page. It is not something I want to do, but if people are upset about it, I will.”

He added: “If people don’t want me to swear on social media, and the council says I have absolutely got to stop, I will have to stop. But that is not who I am. I am serious when I want to be serious, jokey when I want to be, and swear when I feel like it. I would like to keep on, but if people don’t like it, then I will have to stop.”

He said he was aware of numerous complaints made against him, many from political opponents unhappy with his high profile pro-EU national campaigning through his Facebook page, which regularly reached around one million people each month.

Cllr Dart said he had worked hard to represent young people, and had spent two years on a campaign to persuade them to sign up to the electoral register so they could vote.

Mr Taylor, 52, of Torre, Torquay, said he complained about Cllr Dart’s posts because he was concerned about the effect of what he described as the “vile” and “inflammatory” language. He said he considered it gave the wrong impression to young people about what was acceptable in political debate.

The council’s monitoring officer said it was clear that Cllr Dart was acting as a councillor on his Facebook page, and it was reasonable for the public to believe that he made the comments in his “official capacity”.

Mr Taylor was told that Cllr Dart was expected to “promote and support high standards of conduct when serving in his public post.”

The officer concluded that in respect of the allegations about use of obscene language, the councillor’s conduct “fell short of the high standards expected of those elected to represent the residents of Torbay.”

The letter from the officer to Mr Taylor, dated February 1, 2021, reporting the outcome of his complaint, said Cllr Dart would be asked to remove the posts and stop using obscene language on social media where he could be identified as a councillor. He would be asked to write a letter of apology to Mr Taylor and meet the monitoring officer to ensure he was aware of the code of conduct.

Mr Taylor said: “He has been using quite inflammatory and defamatory language, and some of his comments about other politicians were just absolutely vile.

“He is giving the younger generation the impression this is what politics is like, and that is not acceptable. That is why I complained, I felt he was very much delivering the wrong impression.”

After the interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Cllr Dart published a post on Facebook about the disciplinary action on Tuesday, March 16, saying the council had found him guilty of breaking the members code of conduct for swearing on social media.

He wrote: “I have always been very vocal on social media, as you know, and part of my style involves being strong with my wording, often using swear words to show emotion when connecting with readers. (As you know, emotion is hard to portray online).

“Swearing is a touchy subject in politics, because if it can offend someone, it’s typically not allowed. Sadly, I disagree with the categorisation of swearing, and that is very clearly at odds with the views of political organisations, including ones I am a member of.”

Cllr Dart said he would stop using swear words on social media for the remaining two years of his term of office, but would not comply with the other recommendations from the monitoring officer.

He said he would not write a letter of apology as he was not sorry for swearing, he would not delete posts as he had published tens of thousands during the five years his Facebook page had been running, many with swear words, and he did not need to meet the monitoring officer about the code of conduct as he had read it was aware of the standards expected.

He added: “Anyone who knows me and has attended council meetings will know I am courteous, professional, and conduct myself well and always treat members of the public and council colleagues with respect.

“Social media is a very different place to face-to-face meetings, and official business. It’s a forum for lively debate and it’s a place where, almost every month, I reach over 1M people. I connect with people and offer my views and opinions from the perspective of a young person. I believe those who follow me do so because they appreciate how I express my views, and the style I do it in.”

Later that day he posted that he had been surprised and overwhelmed by messages of support. The next day he published a post including the phrase “B******S TO BREXIT!”.

On Saturday Cllr Dart published a link to a news story headlined “Love the flag ‘or move to another country’, Conservative MP says”, and commented: “I believe they call this fascism. F**k off. (I’ve decided fascism deserves swear words)”.

The words were spelled out in full in Cllr Dart’s posts, but letters have been replaced with asterisks in this report as some people may find them offensive.

A Torbay Council spokesperson said: “A complaint was received alleging that Cllr Dart had breached the members code of conduct by using obscene language in Facebook posts.

“The matter was investigated by the council’s monitoring officer in accordance with the local protocol for breaches of the members code of conduct.

“In respect of the allegation, the monitoring officer concluded that Cllr Dart’s behaviour fell short of the high standards expected of those elected to represent the residents of Torbay, and recommended that he remove the posts and refrain from using such language in the future.”

Pioneering rewilding project faces ‘catastrophe’ from plan for new houses

It is a place where rare white storks raise their chicks alongside peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies, where the trees are filled with endangered turtle doves and nightingales, and where the population of breeding songbirds is the densest in Britain.

Donna Ferguson 

For conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts, the Knepp estate in West Sussex is more than just a wildlife sanctuary, it is a symbol of hope: a former arable and dairy farm that is now a world-famous rewilding project, home to some of the rarest birds and insects in the UK.

But the future of this 1,400-hectare (3,500-acre) estate near Horsham – which, in just 20 years, has been utterly transformed by nature into one of most important sites for wildlife in the UK – is now under threat, campaigners say.

Several major sites being considered for development in a draft local plan by Horsham district council will “devastate” the important rewilding project, campaigners say, blocking off any potential to create a vital, protected wildlife corridor linking the estate with the St Leonard’s and Ashdown forests.

“It’s looking more and more likely that the site closest to us – the one right on our border – will be the one they [the council] could go for,” said Isabella Tree, co-owner of the Knepp estate and author of Wilding, a book about how she turned the former farm’s depleted, loss-making land into the site of the largest rewilding experiment in lowland England.

As many as 3,500 new homes could be built on the greenfield site known as Buck Barn, which Tree says would shut off a key route for wildlife to move in and out of the estate as climate change occurs. “If wildlife can’t move in response to temperature rises, then it’s doomed to extinction. Knepp is a biodiversity hotspot and, at the moment, our species are spilling out into the countryside and green spaces around us. If we build these homes, then basically Knepp becomes yet another island. It completely isolates us.”

This could cause a “catastrophic decline” of the rare and endangered wildlife that has made Knepp its home. For example, Tree says, “the small population of nightingales and turtle doves on our land cannot respond to the pressures on them if they can’t move into other areas of land to feed or to break out to nest.”

Isabella Tree: ‘This development would be out in a greenfield site with no infrastructure connecting it at all, and anyone living there would be entirely dependent on a car to do anything.’ Photograph: Anthony Cullen/The Guardian

She fears the influx of so many new residents to the area will also increase local air pollution and put thousands more cars on the roads nearby, further penning in the wildlife of the estate. “There are sites for Horsham district council that are near railway stations and existing infrastructure – that is where housing needs to be built, where people can walk or cycle to shops and schools, without having to get into a car.

“This development would be out in a greenfield site with no infrastructure connecting it at all, and anyone living there would be entirely dependent on a car to do anything. It just seems completely mad.”

Despite fierce local opposition, Tree fears the new local plan could be adopted by the council in a matter of weeks. “This really is a test case that will reveal how seriously the government is taking landscape recovery. We’ve got to act now to save the last little remnants of green space that can actually rebuild our network of nature again, and our landscapes – or it’s gone for ever.”

A Horsham district council spokesperson said the council was required by government to produce a local plan showing how future housing could be built in the district: “It is government policy that every council with planning responsibilities should produce such a plan.” The number of houses that must be built locally was also provided by “a government formula”, the spokesperson added, forcing the council to plan for 1,200 new homes to be built every year in the district.

“Clearly, any additional housing has an impact on the environment,” the spokesperson said. However, the council is working with Sussex Wildlife Trust on the Wilder Horsham District project, a five-year partnership that aims to help wildlife thrive across the district and to create protected networks of land that allows habitats to expand.

“This includes joining up key sites such as the Knepp estate with woodland to the north-east of Horsham and the Mens to the west of Horsham district,” the spokesperson said.

“No decisions have yet been taken on the content of the local plan, but land that is identified to meet the government’s housing requirements will have to provide at least 10% biodiversity net gain and contribute to the council’s Wilder Horsham District objectives, including the provision of a nature-recovery network across Horsham district.”

Other rewilding projects

Wild Ken Hill, Norfolk This project is returning 1,500 acres of Norfolk farmland to nature by letting it become wild. The land includes freshwater marshes, ancient woodland, wood pasture, fen-like areas and acid heathland. It is now home to beavers, free roaming red poll cattle, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies.

Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire This rewilded arable land, owned by the National Trust, has become one of Europe’s most important wetlands. It is now home to a record-breaking 9,600 species of plants, birds and invertebrates – including rare bitterns, cuckoos, hen harriers, short-eared owls, orchids and dragonflies.

Purbeck Heaths, Dorset Seven landowners recently joined forces to create the largest lowland heath national nature reserve in the UK: a 3,331-hectare site similar in size to the town of Blackpool. Fences were removed so horses, North Devon and Longhorn cattle and Mangalica pigs could graze across the land, conifer plantations were restored back to heathland and osprey and ladybird spiders have been reintroduced.

Leave the running of local councils to those elected to do just that

Last Friday, an historic judgement was made in the High Court by Judge Chamberlain, following an application for a Judicial Review by the Good Law Project supported by a Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green MP.

Eileen Wragg 

The action was taken because the Government failed to advertise or follow the competitive tendering process, handing out £17 billion of public money to little-known companies to supply PPE.

Even more concerning were the delays in publishing details of the contracts being offered.

There should now be a public inquiry to establish exactly what went on behind the scenes.

Ironically, East Devon District Council is now being asked by the local MP not to raise car parking charges in an attempt to encourage shop and business customers to use the car parks (Journal, February 17).

Time, I believe, to remind Mr Jupp that due to repeated cuts of Government funding to local authorities since 2009, councils have to look for other sources of raising revenue, to provide the mandatory services that they have to provide such as waste collections, clean streets, housing, etc.

Are we to take financial advice from a member of this Government, which has recklessly squandered billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on the disastrous failure of the PPE scandal? I think not.

Mr Jupp would be better advised to focus his attempts to save public money for the office to which he was elected, and leave the running of local councils to those who were elected to do just that.

Pots calling kettles come to mind!