18 Apr 2012

Conservatory Tax: Day 10, the plot thickens

The Conservatory Tax story broke on Easter Monday in the Daily Mail. That's 10 days ago. If you need to catch up, check out the last three blog posts on this site. By the weekend, both the Mail and the Telegraph were full of rumours of a "large Tory revolt" against Part L's consequential improvement proposals. No one was directly quoted.

Then on Monday 16 April, exactly one week after the initial story, the Telegraph and the Mail publish news that consequential improvements have been scrapped as a result of a "massive Tory backlash", and the next day the Mail prints a more revealing story that David Cameron himself thinks the whole idea was bonkers.

Drill deeper an it appears something very strange is going on here. This is a change of policy, no doubt about it. On Feb 7, Andrew Stunnell, the Lib Dem minister in charge of building regulations, made a speech at the BRE stating that consequential improvements were definitely going to happen. Stunnell said: "It's the grand old Duke of York of building regulations policy... but this time we're going to do it." This refers to the fact that twice before consequential improvements have been mooted in consultation, but never made it passed the finishing post into the published Part L.

But it now appears that Stunnell has been humiliated. "Cameron's spokesman", quoted in the Mail, says "This is a bonkers proposal and the Prime Minister frankly doesn’t understand how it got into the consultation document in the first place." Had he not thought to ask Stunnell? Does he really not have a clue what his ministers are up to? How embarrassing for both Cameron and Stunnell.

Cameron's source continues: "He is not going to allow a situation where someone who wants to do a bit of home improvement is forced to pay another 10 per cent on top."

Is this really a source close to Mr Cameron? Or Cameron himself hiding behind journalistic etiquette? Whoever uttered these words, it sounds like some bloke leaning over the bar at the Dog & Duck having a rant. Like "I only wanted to knock the two rooms into one. Bloody building inspector insisted I put a beam in between: cost an arm and a leg." Or "The sod made us put fire doors on the bedrooms when we did the loft. It was that or sprinklers. Jeezzus, I'm not made of money."

Then the source let's out "We’re all for going green but this is a ridiculous idea, innit." OK. I added the "innit", but you can almost hear it anyway. This is now apparently how government policy is being formulated. We are talking building regulations here, not Abu Qatada.

The old fashioned way of determining building regs went thus. Committees beaver away for months, civil servants draft and redraft documents, consultations get launched, reviews are undertaken and, yes, lobbying goes on behind the scenes. This is how every building regulation we have ever made has been shaped (till now).

Then you have the new way. The Daily Mail blows up a scare story out of almost nothing and 8 days later you have a source close to Mr Cameron spiking the carefully laid proposals, in a interview that's not even an interview. No official word on the change in policy has appeared anywhere on government websites or dispatches. It's all been conducted through the Mail.

And, stranger still, rather than congratulating the Prime Minister on "seeing sense", the Mail then goes and lambasts him for making another U-turn. In the very same article. U turn No 9; time taken to complete U-turn = one week.

It really does make you wonder who the hell is running this country. Is the Mail's agenda to attack any piece of environmental legislation they can uncover, or is it simply to humiliate the Prime Minister. Or both? Not only do they make Cameron sound like a half-wit, but they then go and slap him about for being a half-wit.

There are dozens of things Cameron could have said which wouldn't have pushed him into a corner like this. Such as "We are aware some of the proposals are controversial but it's only a consultation exercise and we will be looking closely how best to press ahead in the coming months." OK, this sounds a bit boring and staid, but it's got to be a bit better than "it's bonkers" and "I've no idea how this came about." That is just so pathetic it's embarrassing.

Something went on between Whitehall and Kensington High Street, home of the Daily Mail, but we outside the Westminster bubble are not party to it. There is more than a whiff of authenticity about it all because Downing St has come out and said they still support the Green Deal: if they supported Part L's consequential improvements as well, they would have said so, but instead there has been a stony silence.

What really pisses me off is that this is all happening in the midst of the Leveson enquiry which has a brief to look at the relationship between press and politicians. Here we have a prime example of the press interfering with due political process. They have barged in, demanded a forum with a menu of half-baked, ill-conceived criticisms, ridden roughshod over all other consultees, and have seen the government cave into their demands in the space of a week.

There could of course be more to this story. Far from being the instigator, the Mail may have been acting on behalf of disaffected Tories looking for a way to overturn these "unpopular proposals." But adding a level of conspiracy to the proceedings only makes matters worse. Either way, the verdict is damning. This is no way to run a railroad.

Finally, a lovely piece in the Guardian about what's been happening in Uttlesford DC for the past five years, where consequential improvements via planning permissions have been hailed a great success by the Tory-led council. And Uttlesford is not alone. I know of at least one other council, Forest of Dean, where similar schemes have been running and I suspect there may be more.

Consequential improvements are nothing new nor scary. You could argue that they underpin the entire edifice that is the building regulations, by making people go that extra mile to get things right. If you want to build a roof, brace it properly so it doesn't collapse. If you want a toilet, make sure it's vented so it doesn't smell. If you are putting in stairs, make sure people can get up and down them safely. And if you are making major alterations to your house, make sure you can afford to heat it. Just why is there a "massive Tory revolt"?


  1. Thankyou Nick. I haven't felt so stirred up by a building story in ages. It's good to get the juices flowing again.And I haven't finished yet.....

  2. Nice comment Mark. You're kinda revealing your political colours there!

  3. Tom,

    Maybe, although I'm not a party political animal. What irks me here is the way this has all been handled: the consultations are there to encourage debate but, when it comes down to it, the debate has been hi-jacked by "other forces."

  4. Is there a scrap of hope to cling to, in that "No 10" have only denied 2 things that aren't actually in the Part L proposals anyway - namely compulsory 10% spend (rather than 10% celing), and conservatory tax, (as the proposals exclude most conservatories)?

  5. Superlative piece, Mark on episode 9 of 'OmniShambles': Will deffo track your stuff in future. 3 further apposite sources:

    9 months back, Wail editor Dacre reportedly met Lawson of the 'educational charity' GWPF for lunch. Since then the Wail's attack on the opportunities & imagined costs of CC mitigation has grown yet shriller:

    DWail's Environment correspondent David Derbyshire, - #dderbyshire - plus - I believe - their Science correspondent, both recently left the rag, giving nutters like CBooker, JDelingpole a free run. I tweeted Derbyshire y'day, inviting his comments on ConservatoryGate; nothing yet.

    Agree over D Carrington's marvellous Uttlesford piece in the Gdn. As Gdn also noted, shrillness from libertarian CC deniers maybe being ramped up now, precisely because wheels falling off corporately funded wagon - e.g. M Hintze revealed as funder of GWPF. In addition, corporates are realising they can't make nuke pay in the UK. Rumour rotating that E-on & RWE announced 2 weeks ago that they were quitting the UK's nuke future because DECC could not guarantee them a doubling of average UK wholesale prices, up to 10 pence per kWh. So EDF get the rest, underwritten by long-suffering French tax-payers.

  6. I read this earlier and couldn't agree more. Quite how they can get away with referring to it as a 'tax' is beyond me.

    I passed two ladies on the street this morning and overheard a few words of their conversation which obviously related to this subject and ahered to the Mail view, and had to restrain myself from repeating your tirade...

  7. ...I fear Alban might be right. Nonetheless, it does seem to me that the Govt could have handled this whole thing so much better if they'd gone about it the other way round. If they'd started with a clear committment to consequential improvements, to boost the economy, create jobs, cut dependence on foreign fuels & expensive renewables, etc, then the Green Deal could have been introduced as one possibly helpful financing option. Instead, they started by trying to flog the idea of a debt to improve your house, insisting it would be at 'no upfront cost' while knowing perfectly well they couldn't guarantee that, thereby making a riod for thier own backs, then many months down the line, 'oh by the way we're going to make you take on this debt' - without any public defence of how the Part L changes were going to benefit the nation. Rod duly wielded by the press.

    So they have cunningly spun what could have been a reassuring helping hand to assist people with doing what they have to do anyway, into- well -- a "tax" ie the worst possible thing a govt can do. Genius. They have turned, well if not exactly a carrot, at least a ladder, into a stick.

    I sometimes wonder if the civil service have some sort of grudge against this administration, but that's probably a discussion for the pub....

  8. Couldn't have summed up my thoughts better. An absolutely brilliant dissection of a shitstorm whipped up by the DM.

  9. And what a terrible insult to the hundreds of people who willingly gave their time, unpaid, to help shape the proposals in the first place. I, for one, will think carefully about whether or not to donate my time next time.

  10. Excellent piece, I couldn't agree more. I can't figure out how the Mail got onto this in the first place. Do they have teams of people looking through every Government publication for the word Green? There's not a huge amount about the Green Deal in the Part L consultation, it just says that people might be able to use it to fund consequential improvements if they meet the Golden Rule. If not they wouldn't be forced to carry out the improvements anyway. Seemed a perfectly reasonable appraoch to me. I just built an extension and had to improve the insultation in the main house to get the extension past the building inspector. Luckily got British Gas to do it for free!

  11. Michael EnstoneApril 19, 2012

    If we were being conspiratorially minded we could see this whole story as a piece of Daily Mail self-promotion. They inaccurately report on a story about requiring a "conservatory tax", something that Mark pointed out wasn't part of the Part L consultation. A week later they ten report the government has backed down on the proposals and when Part L comes out with the same consequential improvements requirements the Mail can claim a victory for having the mandatory "conservatory tax" taken out of the building regulations.

  12. I quite understand why you are upset at the way this has been handled, it's a complete dog's breakfast that makes everyone involved look stupid.

    However, this is what happens when you politicize essentially technical matters. The ability of politicians to influence regulations might seem great but it cut's both ways as the regulations themselves become political footballs. Yes, the Mail is a shit-stirring rag, it's what they do, but it was Cameron who backed off. This is a dreadful way to run a country - but it's par for the course these days.

    Similar things have happened in education, health, policing, almost anywhere the government operate. Nonsensical policies followed because they are believed to be 'popular' - they know this because the media tell them.