Skip to main content

Warm Home Zone Scheme

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

Warm zones is an initiative designed to reduce fuel poverty and promote energy efficiency on a local area basis. Warm zone schemes are a private enterprise managed by Warm Zones Ltd. Contractors are appointed by the warm zones in accordance with relevant procurement processes.

It is important that we tackle climate change though energy efficiency measures at home. I welcome the two schemes operating in Stoke-on-Trent, the warm zone front and the warm homes scheme. It is now possible for people to get grants of up to £2,700 for central heating through the Warm Front scheme, but because there are contractors outside the area, some people are having difficulty finding the extra matching cost. As part of the work that is being done in the warm zone in Stoke-on-Trent, will he consider how we can get more local contractors, in the light of the sustainable procurement policy introduced by the Government this week?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to tackling climate change through local area-based initiatives such as warm zones. We need more warm zones or even low or zero carbon zones for the future. Putting together the Government’s Warm Front programme with the energy efficiency commitment on a local basis, we can make real improvements on a house-to-house basis. On the level of financial assistance provided, the current maximum is £2,700, as my hon. Friend mentioned, or £4,000 where it is necessary to fit an oil-fired central heating system. We are reviewing the grant maximum because one in seven or one in eight people who require central heating systems are being asked to make a financial contribution. In many cases that can be found from elsewhere, but it is right that we consider carefully whether we need to raise the grant maximum, because we are dealing with vulnerable households that would find it difficult to pay the extra amount.

In support of the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley), the grant maxima is adequate in many cases. The problem is that approved contractors have charged £1,000 more than local contractors in some cases in Warwickshire. If the scheme were extended to those local contractors, the grant would not only go further for the individual client, but the scheme as a whole would help more people.

I assure the House that the process of selecting contractors for the Warm Front programme is open and transparent. The process is competitive, and it is the basis on which contractors are appointed. The programme is being independently evaluated by a firm of accountants called White Young Green, which I have met. I have also looked at the vendor-rating system, which is operated by the Eaga partnership, and the process of selecting contractors. I know that people have compared Warm Front installers with other contractors in the local area. Such comparisons are not always fair, because the Warm Front process includes the programme costs and the additional benefit of an annual service check, so some of the criticisms do not compare like with like. However, I am open to any evidence that hon. Members want to submit about pricing, and we are currently reviewing the issue.

Will my hon. Friend examine the competence of some of the contractors employed within those schemes throughout the country? I have been alarmed by recent reports of pure incompetence by some contractors employed on those schemes, which may be symptomatic of a fall in standards across the gas-fitting industry. For example, when an elderly lady had her boiler repaired by a contractor through the Warm Front scheme, the contractor made a basic mistake and left the flame at such a poor level that the boiler simply emitted carbon monoxide whenever it was operating. That is an example of the poor standards among some of the contractors employed by the Warm Front scheme, and I urge my hon. Friend to look into the matter.

Nobody should accept poor standards, and this Government do not. However, let me set that in the context of the Warm Front programme. From 2000 to 2008, the Government will have spent some £1.6 billion on the Warm Front programme. Some 230,000 jobs a year are undertaken through the Warm Front programme, so it is not surprising that performance is not satisfactory in some cases. However, less than 1 per cent. of jobs result in a complaint to the Warm Front programme, and 96 per cent. of those complaints are resolved satisfactorily. As I have said, the installers are rated by a vendor-rating system, and poor performance leads to reduced work or no work in the future. I am happy to examine specific cases, and if my hon. Friend wants to contact me, I will be happy to talk to him.

Despite the excellent work of warm home zones and the Warm Front scheme, why after 10 long years is energy efficiency per se still not being deployed with sufficient ambition and scale to drive down carbon emissions? One third of new homes fail to meet the Government’s unambitious existing targets, yet no one is ever prosecuted. A new British home uses 65 per cent. more energy than a Swedish one, and the Environmental Audit Committee reckons that housing emissions are set to double by 2050. What hope is there of a real step change in energy efficiency, when the great clunking fist, which has been such a brake on progress for a decade, is now a shoo-in for Prime Minister?

It is simply not true to say that we have not made progress in making our homes more energy efficient. We have consistently ratcheted up building standards, so that the new homes that are being built nowadays are far more energy efficient than those that were built just a few years ago. As for our existing housing stock, the Warm Front programme and the energy efficiency commitment—EEC—are making significant progress in terms of helping to improve the thermal efficiency of our existing houses. The EEC has been increased from EEC1 to EEC2. We are currently discussing how we move further with the EEC3 programme for 2008 to 2011, and I expect it to be double that of EEC2. That shows the great strides that we have made, and our ambition as a Government to make our homes far more energy efficient for the future.