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David Frise Feb 23, 2023 10:38:00 AM 3 min read

So, there never was a plan



At the recent BESA President’s Lunch, we received confirmation of something most of us probably already knew – but it was instructive anyway, writes David Frise.  

Our excellent guest speaker was the broadcaster Tom Swarbrick who, in a previous incarnation was political advisor to Theresa May during her time as “the second worst female Prime Minister this century” (his words).

He confirmed that when she committed the UK to the legally binding target of achieving a carbon net zero economy by 2050 (as her political legacy) there was “absolutely no plan” as to how that would be delivered. 

Absolutely. No. Plan. 

“I’m not saying it was the wrong thing to do,” added Swarbrick. “It’s just that nobody [in government] had any idea how to do it.” 

He, quite understandably, then went on to explain his reservations about subsequent policies linked to the overall 2050 target that were mainly to do with their practicality and cost-effectiveness. Yes, they make sense in terms of cutting carbon – 600,000 heat pumps a year, new tight targets for private landlords’ Energy Performance Certificates – but are they achievable in the timescales? Do we have the money and the skilled labour to deliver them? 

2050 is a great sounding year for a politician especially if you are at least four decades away from it. Very unlikely you will still be around to face the music. 

It is a nice round number and has a good ring to it, but it is clearly arbitrary. If you have done the sums, why not announce it will be 2047 or 2053? Or, why not much earlier to really get the economy moving? Next year, perhaps? 

Sadly, it is merely government ‘by announcement’. There is nothing there. Not that we should be surprised, but it was nice to have our suspicions confirmed by someone who was in the room at the time. 

Swarbrick’s focus on cost and practicality brought to mind the work of a man who was largely responsible for Part L of the Building Regulations as we know them today. A man of clear integrity and solid building engineering roots, he spent most of his 40-year career helping to shape government construction policy as an official in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). 

This was, of course, in the days before the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which was also abolished in 2016 by the then Prime Minister…a certain Theresa May (oh, the irony!). And now resurrected by Rishi Sunak as the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. 

But back to Ted King – as that was the name of our man from the DCLG. 

When he retired from government work in 2008, King continued to support our industry as vice-president of CIBSE. He also gave one of the most inciteful comments heard then or since about how regulation could work in a practical and achievable way. 

He probably felt emboldened by retirement to comment at a BESA (then HVCA) conference that, in reality, government officials never believed that regulatory compliance would be total. They knew that was not practical. Or, perhaps, as a building services engineer with 40 years’ experience, he had explained the issues to any of his departmental colleagues who would listen. 

“All we hoped was that most buildings would be mostly compliant most of the time,” he said. 

Can we do better than ‘mostly compliant’?

I would argue that is far better than the situation we have today when most buildings are miles from being compliant. 

Can we deliver net zero by 2050?

Quite probably, but it won’t be because of a series of government announcements and playing fast and loose with the names of departments. It will be because engineers have worked out how to do it and businesses have invested in the technologies and the talent to make it practical. 

We don’t need to be hidebound by dates, but rather to look at what is doable and what is doable well. 

So, no more announcements, please, government. Talk to the industries with the answers and let’s draw up a plan for practical completion by, let’s say, 2033. 


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