Thursday 1 July 2021
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Enabling Community Energy
[Relevant documents: Oral and written evidence taken by the Environmental Audit Committee on Technological innovations and climate change: community energy, HC 1208, Session 2019–21; and correspondence between the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on Technological innovations and climate change: community energy, HC 1208, Session 2019–21 and HC 421, Session 2021–22.]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I do not think it is necessary to remind colleagues how we proceed during Westminster Hall debates, but I remind those who are participating virtually that we are watching you all the time, so be on your best behaviour and watch what you are up to. Members who are participating physically should keep their masks on.
There has been just one withdrawal, and Wera Hobhouse is opening the debate and closing it. I will not impose a time limit, but everyone other than the Front Benchers, who have 10 minutes each, should take roughly four minutes each. Please share the time.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered enabling community energy.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir David, and I am looking forward to the Minister’s response. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, which I secured with the hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). We want to make the case for enabling community energy by removing the blockage that is preventing its huge potential from being realised.
The evidence that the climate crisis threatens to destroy human civilisation and the natural world is increasingly alarming. We must achieve our emissions reduction targets and get to net zero by 2050 at the latest, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Paris accord. The UK is way off track in doing that, as the Climate Change Committee has made clear. Currently, only 12% of our power comes from renewable sources. The only sector that has made reasonable progress is the production of electricity. In all other sectors—heating, transport, agriculture and heavy industry, let alone shipping and aviation—Britain is failing to reach its own targets.
The two big challenges facing householders are heating and transport. How do we rapidly transition from powering our heating and transport with fossil fuels towards doing so with clean energy? A change of this scale can be achieved only through the active involvement of people, because they will have to pay for it through their energy bills, the products they buy, and the taxes they pay. People will need to host the new infrastructure in their neighbourhoods and communities, and they will ultimately need to change their routines and practices. If people do not agree to pay for it, host it or do it, progress to net zero will be more costly and more contested, and it will be less inclusive, equitable and environmentally sustainable. The individual householder or consumer must be at the centre of our transition to net zero, and it seems the Government have not quite understood this; otherwise, they would by now have developed a coherent plan to engage people along the way.
Community energy is one of the few existing tried-and-tested means of engaging people in the energy system. Indeed, the strength of community energy comes from its connection to people and places, because people make community energy. Community energy means smaller-scale, renewable power generation that is owned and run, at least in part, by local community companies or co-operatives. The individual providers might be small or medium-sized, but when taken together, community energy could be done on a very large scale. A 2014 Government report stated that we could have had 3,000 MW of clean community energy generation by 2020. The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent community energy inquiry said that
“by 2030 the community energy sector could grow by 12-20 times, powering 2.2 million homes and saving 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.”
Let us imagine a future in which we can all buy clean electricity directly from a local supply company or co-operative and in which every pound spent powering our homes, workplaces and transport supports local jobs and helps to fund new facilities and services in our communities and in turn contributes to the building of more renewable energy infrastructure. Right now, UK community energy generation is just 319 MW—just 0.5% of our total energy generation. That is a great failure of potential.
The huge potential of community energy is being blocked by our energy market and licensing rules, which are largely unchanged from when they were designed in the 1990s. They make the cost faced by community energy groups insurmountable. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research states that the financial, technical and operational challenges involved in setting up a licensed energy supply company mean that initial costs exceed £1 million.
Let us imagine setting up a microbrewery. We plan to deliver our beers to local pubs, off-licences and homes, but then we are told that we have to pay £1 million in road tax for our delivery van. These businesses would never be started, and the savings in transport costs, greenhouse gas emissions and prices would never be realised. That is the reality that the community energy sector faces.
The 319 MW of installed community energy capacity exists because of the dedicated efforts of the people who make up the UK’s few hundred community energy groups—groups such as Bath and West Community Energy, which is in my constituency and which uses its revenues to support energy efficiency in homes, fuel-poverty programmes and low-carbon transport. Often, these groups reach those who are traditionally left behind. They are staffed largely by volunteers, who work hard to survive in an unnecessarily harsh regulatory environment.
Our outdated energy market rules mean that the groups must sell their power to large utilities, which sell it on to customers. That makes it impossible for community energy to scale up. The market structure does not recognise and incentivise the efficiencies and savings that community energy’s distributed generation creates by enabling power to be consumed closer to where it is physically generated.
The Government say that there is no problem. In answer to a parliamentary written question on 1 March, they said:
“The right to local energy supply already exists under the Electricity Act 1989. One of Ofgem’s key strategic priorities is increasing flexibility across the electricity system to support the delivery of net zero and ensuring that consumers benefit from these innovative changes.”
That misses the point: the fact that the right exists does not mean that it is practically possible. In answer to a written question on 2 November 2020, the former Minister of State, who is now Secretary of State, said:
“Ofgem can award supply licences that are restricted to a geographical area and has just consulted on how to use this facility more effectively to bring forward innovation. Ofgem’s Licence Lite regime also aims to reduce the cost and complexity of entering and operating in the market for suppliers.”
Clearly, neither has been able to achieve the potential of at least 3,000 MW of community energy generation that was identified in the 2014 Government report.
The intention behind Licence Lite was commendable, but it has not delivered what was intended. Its key flaw is the need for local renewable generators to partner with a willing licensed energy utility. None of the existing community energy groups in the UK is licensed to sell its electricity directly to local customers. That is why community energy has hardly grown for more than a decade when it should have been multiplying many times over. The flexibilities and allowances for local supply that Ministers referred to have not delivered. As the call for evidence for the Environmental Audit Committee’s recently launched community energy inquiry put it so well,
“the ability of communities to sell the energy produced locally is limited in the UK’s centralised regulatory system, meaning that projects often have to sell energy directly to the grid, then buy it back at additional cost.”
The solution is a right to local supply that enables community energy schemes to sell their power directly to local customers. That would make it viable to expand existing schemes and to construct many new ones. The Local Electricity Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Waveney in the last Session would do that. Think of it—a surge in clean energy and a surge in public buy-in for climate solutions, because people would see the local economic benefits happening in their own communities.
The Government have said they want to enable community energy. They have agreed in principle with the need for a right to local supply, but they have not agreed to look at the detail of how the true potential of community energy could be unleashed and why there are persistent barriers. Words must now become actions. I therefore ask the Minister to engage with me and other lead Members supporting this reform, and the campaigners and experts behind it. Together, we can get the detail right and implement it quickly and effectively.
The need to get to net zero is becoming more and more urgent. We will not get there without the consent and active engagement of the people who have to pay for it, host any infrastructure and change their habits. Community energy could make a large contribution, not only to produce the clean power we need but to bring people with us in our ambition to get to net zero before it is too late.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing and leading this debate and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on his supporting and campaigning work.
On 10 June last year, I introduced the Local Electricity Bill. Unfortunately, due to the pressures on the Parliamentary timetable, the Bill made no further progress. What it did do was vividly illustrate that there is an enormous appetite from all corners of our four nations for an upsurge in community energy projects.
While credit should go to the campaigning work of Power for People, it is abundantly clear that local councils, cities, towns and villages want to play their part in the transition to net zero. This is not a straightforward journey, and we need to use all the tools in the box to ensure that we reach our destination on time and, hopefully, after a smooth ride. This means removing those regulatory barriers that currently prevent community energy from playing its full role.
The main obstacle prohibiting local communities from getting involved is that the current supply licensing regime is highly complicated, national in scope and has onerous credit requirements. It is a one-size-fits-all approach, heavily skewed in favour of the status quo. There is an exemptions regime for supply of less of 5 MW and a Licence Lite supplier licence, but these are not fit for modern purpose.
There have been recent reviews by both Ofgem and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy into the current energy supply licensing arrangements, and there is an acknowledgment that the current regime is opaque and difficult to interpret. However, as yet there is no route map setting out the path to reform. The Government now need to commit to that regulatory reform, reaffirm support for community energy and remove those values. They should start by answering a number of questions, which I will list.
First, what has happened to follow up on Ofgem’s derogation policy review and other calls for evidence on aspects of the energy supply market? Does Ofgem intend to progress its consideration of a local licence?
Secondly, as indicated in the energy White Paper, does BEIS intend to ask Ofgem to provide latitude in the supply licensing regime for local suppliers?
Thirdly, as part of its ongoing review of the licensing derogation review, will BEIS consider widening the exemptions regime to enable local supply?
Fourthly, when is Ofgem planning to issue its review of the smart export guarantee and come to a conclusion on potential enhancements to provide a more certain route to market for community providers?
Fifthly and finally, are the Government proposing to consult more generally on community energy and local supply in advance of the net zero strategy?
This is a highly technical and complicated subject. I shall be writing to the Government and asking those questions. It would be easy to put this whole matter into the “too difficult to do” tray, but that would be a dereliction of duty. We would be letting down those thousands of communities who want to play their part and get involved. The Government, parliamentarians and Ofgem need to work together to get over those barriers. I hope that the Minister will indicate a willingness to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as always, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on their work on this matter and on securing the debate this afternoon. They have laid out the huge potential of enabling greater community energy across these islands. The hon. Member for Waveney went into some detail on some of the mechanisms that we believe can realise that potential—namely, a right to local supply.
In advance of this afternoon’s debate, I have been contacted by supportive Members from all political parties who were unfortunately unable to attend. They include the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the hon. Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), for North Down (Stephen Farry), for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), the hon. Members for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome). This is an issue that enjoys considerable cross-party support.
I was delighted to be one of a cross-party group of some 250 Members who supported the Local Electricity Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Waveney in the previous Session. That Bill proposed a mechanism to implement a right to local supply. As the hon. Member for Waveney mentioned in his remarks, that proposal has quite an impressive and broad coalition of support behind it. There is a national campaign co-ordinated by Power for People, which is a coalition of 76 national non-governmental organisations, charities and trade associations, and 70 local councils. Impressively, three of the six distribution network operators—the companies that own and run the UK’s regional energy grids—publicly support the campaign and back calls for a right to local supply as enunciated in that Bill.
It is worth reiterating that a right to local supply was specifically recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee in its welcome and thorough investigation into how to enable more community energy generation. The possible benefits, although they may sound too good to be true, are very real. The “Community Energy State of the Sector 2021” report states that the existing community energy groups operating across these islands reduced energy bills by £2.9 million last year and created £3.1 million-worth of community benefit expenditure. We should just imagine what those figures could be if community energy was fully enabled and grew from its current 319 MW to more than 3,000 MW.
In Wales, we have the highest number of community energy organisations per head of population relative to the rest of these islands, but if a right to local supply was established, even more people and communities could become electricity customers of local enterprises—communities such as Cardigan and Ceredigion, which has a budding local energy club and ample local generation of renewable energy, but where local demand is not currently being catered for by local supply. A right to local supply would help connect consumers with locally generated electricity and the knock-on effect would be seen in communities across these islands.
This measure is not just about addressing the climate crisis, as important as that is. It is also about supporting more local skilled jobs, and it is about cheaper energy bills. It is very much a win-win-win. It can be done. While we welcome the Government’s support of the principle, we believe that, if we work together with the Minister and the Department, we can get the detail right and enact a local electricity Bill that enshrines the right to local supply. I hope the Minister will be open to such a meeting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), my near neighbour in Wales and a doughty champion of community energy.
My own interest in community energy originates from growing up at Lake Vyrnwy, where my father ran a hotel, a few miles south of my constituency of Clwyd South, where the mighty Vyrnwy masonry dam, the largest in Europe when it was completed in 1890, contains a hydroelectric unit that used to supply the surrounding valley with electricity until it moved on to the mains in 1960. I strongly believe that we need to return to that model of community energy. Therefore, in Clwyd South, I have been championing the hydroelectric potential of the River Dee in Llangollen with town councillor Stuart Davies. I warmly welcome the recent decision by members of the town council to set up a task and finish group to investigate the feasibility of using the site of decommissioned hydro-units in the town.
Further up the River Dee in my constituency, in Corwen, is the perfect example of a community energy project—the Corwen community hydro scheme. People came together as a community to build a 55 kW high head hydro scheme in the town. It is 100% owned and run by the community, which raised more than £300,000 for the construction with a share offer five years ago, of which 50% was bought by people in and around Corwen. The success of that first project has led to a second larger project in Bonwm, near Corwen, where work is expected to start this autumn on building a 100 kW hydro scheme, which will be completed ahead of the end of the feed-in tariffs in July 2022.
The Corwen projects have benefited significantly from the support of the local landowner, Lord Newborough, whose Rhug Estate has put sustainability firmly at the heart of its business mission, particularly through its own renewable heat and power generation. That has led to the welcome announcement this week that Rhug has won a net zero award from the North Wales Mersey Dee Business Council.
The Local Electricity Bill lies at the heart of this debate, and I, like many other Members, have put its key points to the UK Government. I know that the Minister and the other BEIS Ministers are keen to take as constructive an approach as possible on what I appreciate is a highly complex issue. While we debate these matters, the Corwen community hydro scheme is actually putting into practice the aims set by the Local Electricity Bill—namely by creating a market between the local generators and the local householders directly. It is doing that by using its electricity to benefit homes in Corwen via the model developed and run by Energy Local, the community interest company that is transforming the electricity market for communities with small-scale renewable generators, which was referenced in the Government’s energy White Paper. The Energy Local model enables consumers to benefit from cheaper electricity if they use power when Corwen’s hyro is generating. The participants pay only 7.5p per kWh, compared with the average market price of 11p to 15p. Of course, that is facilitated by the arrival of smart meters and Energy Local clubs.
I strongly support community energy schemes, as proposed by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion. I am proud that Corwen is the second Energy Local scheme in the UK. The first was also in Wales—in Bethesda, in north Wales. I wish every success to similar schemes that are in the pipeline in England and elsewhere in the UK.
It is a great pleasure, as others have said, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate, and the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has been diving into the detail of this, as we have observed over a period of time. I praise his impressive cross-party work, which is very good indeed. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) for his cross-party efforts in this area. The list of Members he read out showed that there is a broad feeling that this should happen. It is an idea whose time has come. It is a modern idea, and it needs to happen.
At the moment—I checked before the debate—the UK is using 35 GW of energy, 38% of which is gas. Being June, there is 18% solar and 6% wind; 8% comes from France and 7% comes from Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands. Surely, when only 250 MW of energy is being produced locally, with the potential of 3 GW, it is time to change. That 3 GW would eclipse the 0.5 GW of coal that is being used this afternoon, according to the energy app.
It is vital that we take this step and move forward. Ofgem, as we know, is a bureaucracy. There is no energy market really in the UK; it is a bureaucracy, and it needs fixing and tinkering with. That is why local energy is an idea whose time has come. In my constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, it is presumed that energy is transmitted towards London, given Ofgem’s bureaucratic models, and then distributed back from somewhere such as London. There is a distortion of reality because of those presumptions.
Stòras Uibhist, a local energy provider in South Uist, has wind farms that generate about 7 MW, and it is quite easy to see in South Uist what is happening, because of the power station at Lochcarnan. In Lochcarnan, it is possible to see when energy is being imported and exported. When energy is being produced in Uist, it is being used in Uist in the main. Some of it is exported, but very little energy is imported, which is why we need to have some sort of change to reflect that. We cannot have the most expensive distribution and transmission charges, when the reality is that we are not transmitting or even receiving energy.
The Scottish Government are trying to do something—they say it will be in the next Parliament—about working with Scottish islands to demonstrate the idea of carbon neutrality within islands. It is possibly already there within Uist and other islands, but it works well in the demonstration at Lochcarnan power station. I hope that this moves forward in the way that has been suggested cross-party. As our islands are 40% closer to the Arctic circle than London is, we have very long days at the moment—17 hours and 46 minutes. Some people in London might be surprised that solar power can be used. The former First Minister Alex Salmond said we are sitting on the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”. Unfortunately with wind, that is particularly true when it comes to ferries and travel, but when it comes to energy, we have huge potential. It is something that we can use, so I would like to see the efforts coming forward.
I would like to see the UK Government accept the reality. They have power over this issue at the moment, and they really should listen to the cross-party voices—from the Conservatives, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and elsewhere—and make the change to enable the potentially huge increase. As I said, 35 GW of energy are being used this afternoon. Three of those gigawatts—10%—could be coming from local energy production, which would also be a stimulus economically for many local communities. With that I will stop, because I do not want to take too much time and I know there a lot of Members who want to come in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this important debate on an issue that could fundamentally change not just the electricity market, but people’s ability to access cheap, sustainable and locally produced energy across the whole of the UK.
I was really pleased to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) in his efforts to enact the Local Electricity Bill in the last Session. To my very inexperienced eye, the Bill appeared to be a win-win. It drove the creation of new local electricity markets, lowered prices for consumers and created a path for households and businesses to access renewable and sustainable energy in a new way. A 2014 Department of Energy and Climate Change report on community renewable energy suggested that by last year—2020—3,000 MW of generating capacity could have been in place. Instead, we generate around 278 MW from community renewable energy.
The scale of the opportunity here is absolutely vast, and we need only look across to our neighbours in Europe to see the prize on offer. In Germany, there are over 1,000 community-based supply companies producing renewable energy. In that country, the four large utilities control only 40% of the market, which drives real consumer choice and consumer benefit. Unleashing community energy would enable local economic resilience in communities across the UK. Bypassing the large utilities would allow them to keep significant value and economic returns within their own economies. It would create skilled local jobs, more viable local businesses and stronger local bonds. I would argue that the necessary reforms are not just about cheaper electricity bills; they are about helping us get to net zero too. To be honest, I see them as a form of levelling up in action.
Last year, I was pleased to visit Hobkin Ground Farm in the Lickle valley in my constituency. Megan and Mark want to run a low-impact, sustainable farm, leaving as little mark on the environment as possible in their farming. In pursuit of that, they have installed a hydro generator. They power their own farm and a couple of cottages, largely removing themselves from the electricity grid. They would like to go further, but the cost of connection is prohibitive for them. Across the valley from them in Broughton-in-Furness is another project, which aims to bring together local residents in a co-operative to buy renewable electricity from a hydro plant at Logan Gill, allowing them to benefit from cleaner air and cheaper energy. Potentially 400 customers could benefit, saving about 20% off their electricity bills.
The model is great, and I praise local residents Jennifer Sanderson, Rob Dunphy and others, Cumbria Action for Sustainability, and Ellergreen Hydro for working together to deliver it. However, for the project to succeed, it is reliant on the benevolence of Octopus Energy, a nationally licensed and huge utility company, to turn the taps and get them going. If we enable the right to local supply, that ceases to be a problem.
Reforming market rules so that local and regional-sized renewable energy generators could sell their electricity direct to local customers would mean that my constituents in Broughton would no longer be reliant on having to choose from a few large national suppliers. They could go local and go sustainable. If we can achieve that, the effect will be to take community energy schemes, such as that one, from being a smattering of projects across the country to thousands. They currently generate only around 0.5% of the UK’s electricity, but let us think of the scale we could generate. With a few small changes, a thousand flowers could bloom. That will happen only if local community-owned interests are given a route to market.
I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will see the opportunity in community energy to be a tool in levelling up our local communities. I look forward to hearing her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this important debate.
The question of energy cannot be separated from the survival of our planet. That is why today’s discussion is so vital and why I welcome the broad cross-party support for community energy and the Local Electricity Bill. Energy production and consumption both lie at the heart of our battle to combat climate change. To win the battle we need to meet the targets we have set for cutting carbon emissions. The UK Government have now set in law a cut in emissions of 78% by 2035, bringing us more than three quarters of the way to net zero by 2050. To help us meet the target we need to put the Local Electricity Bill back on the agenda.
The Bill could establish a vital local supply that would give the energy market regulator, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, the legal duty of establishing new market rules that could help community energy growth. The cost of setting up organisations that sell locally generated renewable energy to local people, together with their running costs, should be proportionate to the size of the business. That reform would make local projects financially viable, unleashing the huge potential of community renewable energy. This has been shown to work in other countries. In Germany, there are 1,000 such supply companies, most of which are local community-owned suppliers, and almost all provide renewable energy.
In the UK, the slow but steady growth of the community energy sector has brought tangible results, with local organisations now serving more than 358,000 people. But further growth is blocked because of cost. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research stated that the financial, technical and operational challenges involved in setting up a licensed energy supply company mean that the initial costs exceed £1 million. Most community energy companies cannot afford that. Yet providing community energy organisations with the right financial and legislative support could result in a huge expansion of renewable electricity generation.
The Community Energy 2030 Vision estimates that with such support the growth of the community sector could power more than 2 million homes, create up to 9,000 well-paid and highly skilled jobs, shave millions off the cost of domestic bills, and contribute almost £2 billion to the economy every year. We need to unleash that potential. The Committee on Climate Change states that the UK is way off track to reach its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Renewable energy generation currently accounts for only 11% of all UK energy use. That must change. The extension of community energy production can help us move faster to our goals.
I want to end by supporting the recommendations of the April 2021 Environmental Audit Committee, which outlined a positive way forward: remove the barriers to the development of community energy by passing the Local Electricity Bill into law; support the vital role that community energy plays in achieving net zero carbon emissions; and give practical support to the community organisations that help us achieve our targets.
As COP26 moves ever closer, let us ensure that the UK catches up with our neighbours, such as Germany. Let us help community energy to generate electricity for our children and grandchildren. If we miss our target, we are putting those future generations at grave risk of a climate breakdown.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this important debate, and I also recognise the work of the hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake); indeed, the hon. Member for Ceredigion allowed a number of interventions during his recent Adjournment debate on this subject.
We know that we face a global climate crisis, which will require significant shifts in how we go about our day-to-day lives. Supporting such changes clearly requires Government direction and support, and many communities recognise the importance of proactively transitioning to green living. I am proud to have examples of that in my constituency of North East Fife.
For instance, Sustainable Cupar is a charity that was set up 10 years ago to focus on the protection of the local environment and on supporting local residents in transitioning to a low-carbon, sustainable and ethical future. Since its formation, it has engaged with the local council and the Scottish Government on programmes for fewer road emissions, better public transport and walking routes, and the building of more sustainable homes, as well as exploring issues around direct heat schemes.
Also in my constituency is the University of Saint Andrews, which is North East Fife’s largest employer. The university is led in this regard by its environmental sustainability board, which is chaired by Professor Sir Ian Boyd, previously chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and now the professor of biology at the university. The university is taking on the net zero challenge, alongside community organisations and businesses, and I attended the first meeting of the outreach group back in May.
Under complementary environmental, sustainability and carbon management plans, the scope of the group’s approach encompasses procurement activities and the travel of international students coming to the university to study. The aim is to reach net zero by 2035. A new biomass plant and a potential onshore wind farm development will deliver energy to meet the university’s needs and potentially those of the wider community, too.
Communities are clearly vital in the move to net zero; they are best placed to know what changes work best for them. Where communities are ahead of the Government’s policies, which we are hearing today, they should be enabled to act, not blocked from acting.
I look to the success of wind power energy in Denmark and Germany, and I see systems that empower such citizen engagement. It is achieved through the formation of wind guilds in Denmark, which are forms of partnerships or co-operatives that own or part-own wind farms. Indeed, so ingrained is this idea of citizen ownership that there is now a law in Denmark requiring that the local population must be afforded the ability to purchase up to 20% of the value of any new wind installation.
Although no system is without faults, we see that countries such as Germany and Denmark lead the way on clean energy through community energy programmes, while the UK, which arguably was initially an early-market entrant in relation to wind, is sadly being left behind.
We do not have to be left behind. Just this week, I visited Orkney with the Scottish Affairs Committee, as part of our inquiry into renewable energy in Scotland. Orkney has long been home to renewable energy and it is now expanding its scope into marine renewables. It recently became the home of the European Marine Energy Centre’s orbital tidal turbine, a prototype that is the world’s most powerful marine turbine.
Altogether, Orkney produces 120% of its own energy needs, and again community engagement and collaboration with local authorities are vital. Orkney Islands Council’s Responsive Flexibility, or ReFLEX, project is a £28.5 million scheme, aiming to create an integrated energy system for the islands, with the communities in those islands at its heart.
Those developments should be applauded, but on my trip to Orkney we spoke to a local community news outlet that highlighted some of the issues around fuel poverty on the islands. As other Members have already said, it is clear that issues such as transmission charges need to be addressed and that all Governments need to provide a focus on ensuring that such innovative energy sources are used to heat energy-efficient homes. Communities must be put front and centre in the shift to clean energy, and given a stake in this change.
The Government say they are committed to reaching net zero, in order to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. This is not the time to be stuck in the old ways of doing things; those ways will not work now. We must embrace new ways of working with and for our communities without delay, and community energy is part of that process.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing the debate, and all those who have spoken on this subject not just this afternoon, but on other occasions.
I join the consensus that locally generated energy has huge, partly technical, advantages. We can, if we make use of this method, increase the volume of energy generated and, more importantly, the volume of sustainable and renewable energy generated. If energy has to travel less far from where it is generated to where it is consumed, we lose less in transit, and of course, we know from the examples of community energy that we can already see, that it brings huge broader decarbonisation benefits and educational advantages, too, so there is technically very much to commend it. There are also psychological advantages. As others have said, if we enhance our capacity to generate energy locally, we help people to participate in the combating of climate change, and we make that effort local, rather than distant from them.
Of course, as has already been observed, we have had the right to local energy suppliers for about 20 years, but that is a distinctly theoretical right at the moment. The broader issue that we face is how we go about realising the current unrealised potential of locally generated energy. To do that, we have to address the obstacles. As others have already observed, the entry costs for local energy enterprises are far too high, and their inability to sell directly to local customers is the fundamental problem, which was addressed by the Local Electricity Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) so ably introduced in the previous session. I would not claim—nor, I suspect, would he—that the Bill was perfect, but its fundamental purposes and objects are worth pursuing. I hope that this afternoon, the Government will accept that they will do exactly that.
There is so much growing local enthusiasm to assist the Government in delivering their climate goals. Everybody wants to help, and this is a practical way of doing so. I can think of examples in my constituency, such as the Napton Environmental Action Team, or the Harbury Energy Initiative, which has been in receipt of Government financial assistance in environmental pursuits and is keen to do more. The Government need to help them to help the Government deliver our collective climate goals. The Government can look at tax incentives and at the role of local authorities, and they should look at ways of ensuring access to the cable network at a fair price, but if we cannot ensure that local enterprises producing locally generated energy can sell their product locally, we will still have a fundamental object to the way that we want to deliver locally generated energy.
As I understand it, the Government will produce their net zero strategy refresh this year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that as part of that exercise, the Government will look carefully at how they can deliver the fundamental objects of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend for Waveney, and make sure that we can assist others to assist us in delivering those climate objectives on time.
It is, as usual, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Members who have already spoken.
Whenever there is a debate on community energy, I have the great pleasure of speaking on behalf of some of the innovative and hardworking community energy groups that operate here in Bristol North West. On that note, I ought to declare my interests: I am a founding member of the Bristol Energy Cooperative, and my wife works for the Association for Decentralised Energy.
Any colleagues who drive through my constituency—most probably over the M5 at the mouth of the River Avon—will see that we have a scattering of onshore wind turbines. Soon, we will have one more, and it is primarily that wind turbine that I will talk about. Ambition Lawrence Weston is a community group that works with residents in Lawrence Weston, the area of my constituency where I grew up, to create the best possible community for local people. They have developed and implemented a local neighbourhood plan, they are building affordable sustainable homes for local residents, and they are now investing in community energy projects, too.
Their latest project—the wind turbine—is community-owned and will be built on land owned by Bristol City Council in the industrial estate adjacent to Lawrence Weston. Standing 150 metres tall, it is estimated that this one turbine alone will generate enough low-carbon energy to power 3,500 homes, reducing carbon dioxide emissions associated with the generation of that power by nearly 2,000 tonnes each year.
Lawrence Weston has only 3,200 homes in the area, with many homes of families on lower incomes. Although it is clear that not every home in Lawrence Weston can be powered by only one intermittent source of power, it is a great shame that local residents cannot benefit from the lower energy costs associated with the low-carbon energy that is generated locally by their local community energy group, especially when those residents know that any surpluses will be reinvested into their local community.
We have already heard today how difficult the process is. It has taken years of hard work to even get to this stage. Ambition Lawrence Weston did not just have to secure the site from the council, it had to bid for financial support from the council, as well as Bristol and Bath Regional Capital and the West of England Combined Authority—funding of £500,000 from the combined authority came from the European regional development fund. That was in addition to other grants required to fund all the detailed groundwork needed in order to get planning permission and, in this case, sign-off and approval from the Secretary of State. That has all been achieved, after years of hard work.
The Minister will know that, as part of our net zero target and the pathways to net zero set out by the Climate Change Committee, we need to double the size of our electricity system. As with heat, we are increasingly talking about the right technology in the right place, with some areas better suited to heat networks or hydrogen pumps more generally. The same is true with electricity. With a more flexible distribution network comes the opportunity for more decentralised, local sources of power; it is a great opportunity for community energy to fulfil that need.
In addition to answering the questions that colleagues have asked already, will the Minister set out how she thinks community energy will play a role in doubling the size of the power sector? Will she also confirm that the shared prosperity fund will replace the funding sources previously available for community energy groups made available through the European regional development fund?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Members for bringing this debate. My nearby colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), has been a real champion for this cause.
There is no doubt that we are world leaders in decarbonising. Our target to go further and faster by cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 is now enshrined in law. To get to that target, we all have to play a part. That is why I support enabling community energy. Giving powers to local communities to play their role is vital for many reasons—we have already heard some of them.
At the top level, we want total buy-in from the community, not just in contributing to decarbonising with innovative and imaginative schemes such as those we have heard about, but also so local communities can create their own income streams by selling green power to the grid. The role is even bigger than that, because I wonder what part they can play in helping to fill the energy gap. Local sourcing and generation can play a significant role—its potential is vast.
I sit on the Environmental Audit Select Committee. Our technological innovations and climate change inquiry has examined the subject, and our report clearly suggests that, with greater public engagement on net zero, more financing, local authority engagement and a reduction of regulatory barriers, community energy has enormous potential for real growth. That enormous potential gives us the opportunity to fill the energy gap.
If we think about the amount of power we will need for the grid to charge electric vehicles in future, for instance, it will be phenomenal. That is why we are already aiming to produce 40 GW of wind power by 2030. The more community energy projects there are, the more we can meet that demand and help stabilise peaks in demand.
My constituents in North Norfolk have local supply constraints: we are rural, fuel poverty is a serious issue, and there are significant problems with a lack of connection to mains gas. On top of that, my community also bears the serious issue that it has the largest concentration of offshore windfarms, whose cable corridors are being chased through the countryside, and from which we have little economic benefit.
If Germany can get community energy schemes to work and the complexity of market obstacles can be overcome, why can we not do that here? The benefits of local employment, greater awareness and a drive to give licensing power to local authorities so that local communities can play their role will all add to the notion that we can continue to drive the cost of production of power down and continue to hit our net zero targets. It is really heartening to see cross-party support for this. I hope the Government can really begin to embrace the situation and bring community energy to the fore.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate and the MPs who have led on it.
Hon. Members will be aware that I supported the Local Electricity Bill in the previous Parliament. I strongly believe in giving power to the people by allowing local communities to have much greater control over the energy that brings them to life.
In March 2019, Bedford Borough Council declared a climate emergency, and it has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030. I know that many other local authorities have done so too. It has committed:
“To reduce its own carbon emissions by implementing projects and policies and encourage the residents and businesses of the Borough to reduce their carbon emissions so Bedford Borough is seen as the place to grow and has a good quality local Environment.”
It asked me to speak in this debate, as did a number of my constituents, because they recognise that community energy and participation are key to achieving those goals. I agree.
Many of my constituents are deeply concerned about climate change. They want to make a difference, despite how overwhelming the task feels. They can make a difference, however big or small, with initiatives such as community energy projects. The Government must do all they can to support and encourage such projects.
Bedford Borough Council was awarded more than £1.8 million from the South East Midlands local enterprise partnership’s Getting Building Fund last year, enabling plans for the all-new Bedford Green Technology and Innovation Park to become a reality. A former landfill site is being transformed into a green energy innovation park, and work is now under way at Elstow in Bedfordshire. Work to cap the closed 30-hectare site with clay began last year, and the site is soon set to become home to more than 1,800 solar panels, which will generate and supply on-site buildings and local businesses with low-carbon, clean energy.
Plans are also progressing to use the site as an education and training centre. Early support has been pledged by the University of Bedfordshire, Cranfield University and local colleges. It is really exciting to see a former landfill site being transformed into such an innovative energy park, which will provide low-carbon clean energy and green jobs for people and businesses in Bedfordshire. I congratulate everyone who made the project a reality. However, there is so much more that could and should be done. There is a huge swell of support from the public, who are desperate to get involved at a local level with green initiatives. They want a green recovery from the pandemic, not business as usual.
There is a huge consensus of support for initiatives such as solar panels in schools. What better way to show the generation that is most going to have to deal with the consequences of the rampant abuse of fossil fuels that we mean business than to have their schools run on green energy? Although the Government talk the talk on such initiatives, they are not walking the walk. We need urgent and early action, not words.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Sir David, as always. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on setting the scene and giving us all the opportunity to participate in the debate, and thank her and the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for initiating it. In particular, I want to mention the hon. Member for Ceredigion, whose Adjournment debate had the best turn-out for such a debate that I can recall and saw consensus of support for what he was saying that night. It is good to have the chance to reiterate and underline those points in Westminster Hall today.
I am pleased to say that I added my support for the Local Electricity Bill. Although it does not specifically apply to electricity services in Northern Ireland, I am always interested to learn more on such issues—I believe we should do so—to analyse whether we can avail ourselves of similar strategies. That is what I wish to do in Northern Ireland. We have only two examples of such schemes in Northern Ireland; I wish we had more. There is a challenge for us to try to achieve that.
Community energy paves the way for wider decarbonisation goals and drastic improvements in localised renewable energy, making electricity services more sustainable in our communities. We should be trying to grasp the principle of what we are trying to achieve.
The pandemic had a significant impact on Government funding for community electricity programmes. The United Kingdom has witnessed the emergence of 424 community energy organisations, with England having 290, Scotland 72 and Wales 60, whereas in Northern Ireland we are in the very poor position of having only two. It is not that we do not want to, just that the opportunities have not been there.
The Local Electricity Bill seeks to change the Electricity Act 1989 in England, so that Ofgem is permitted to grant local electricity supply licences to local generators that are not designated in existing legislation. With five local energy hubs in England, it is clear that they are leading the pack, as they are in football. Reports show that as of 2020, community energy contributed 278 MW of renewable energy. If we take it to what we can do, there is hope that by 2030 2.2 million homes will save over 2 million tonnes of carbon emissions every year. The challenge is there. I believe that the Government are committed to that, and all the regions of the UK should try to their best to achieve it.
Let me make a quick comment about Northern Ireland. Communities across the United Kingdom are starting to recognise the increasing popularity of localised energy organisations, including in Northern Ireland, despite there only being two electricity corporations there, and in Strangford in particular. The first, Northern Ireland Community Energy, was the first solar community-owned energy co-operative in Northern Ireland. To finance its recent innovations, £150,000 was raised and this was the first time Northern Ireland was able to buy into a community energy benefit society. Its continuing aim is to increase awareness of community electrical shares in Northern Ireland. The second, Strangford Lough tidal turbine, is the world’s first commercial-scale tidal energy project. I am very pleased to say that it is in my home constituency. I have visited the site and seen what it can do, and the possibilities, and I am pleased to see that this wonderful landmark can be used to promote the use of sustainable energy.
I believe we have an opportunity, given that in 2020 358,000 people were engaged with energy and climate change. I would like to think these numbers will be on the increase. I welcome the content of the Local Electricity Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Waveney. I hope that it progresses as it has real potential to succeed. It encourages energy organisations to engage with local authorities as opposed to largely populated and financed firms. The debate is about local communities, and I certainly encourage that.
We must ensure that the funding for these projects is allocated. I call on the Minister and all involved to engage with Members in the Chamber today, along with the members of the community energy organisations. We can do better, and I believe we must.
It is always a pleasure, Sir David, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on not only their efforts to secure this debate but their ongoing championing of the issue of reforming the energy market to support community production and distribution. They have consistently demonstrated, and have done so again today, the wide cross-party and cross-country support—I think every nation of these islands has been represented in the debate today, and every party, more or less—
Some might say that. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) might have slightly different views. This is all about devolving and empowering local communities, so I suppose it depends on what level we want to devolve it down to—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend is very sorry that he cannot intervene, but we can see him on the screen.
One of my local communities, which I am sure would quite happily be an independent country if someone would let it, is in Partick, in the west end of Glasgow. It is very supportive of the idea of the community council there; it backed a related Bill in the last Session and wants to see it come back again. Indeed, the Scottish National party as a whole support that; our usual spokesperson on these matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), sends his apologies for not being here today, but we can all be assured of his ongoing support, too.
Very briefly, in order to leave time for the Minister to respond to the debate, I will look at the importance of the principle and the concept of community energy, and at some of the experience that we have heard in Scotland. I also have a few questions for the Minister.
One of the best descriptions of the concept of community energy that I have come across came from the Glasgow Community Energy co-operative. Its share offer successfully completed on 18 June; it had over 170 applications and raised £30,000 of financing, which is helping to put solar panels on the roofs of a number of schools in the city. It has said:
“For us ‘community energy’ has a double meaning. Glasgow Community Energy aims to connect and empower local people through community-ownership and democratic involvement in our renewable energy co-operative, as well as by inspiring and sustaining community activism through our Community Benefit Fund.”
So, for the Glasgow Community Energy co-operative, community energy is about not just providing energy for the community but harnessing the energy of the community as well—that galvanising effect, that psychological effect if you like, which the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) referred to.
Of course, behind that are the long-standing pressures for reform of the electricity market, or the electricity bureaucracy as my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said. There is a need for energy production and supply to be reformed, particularly in the face of rapid climate change. The need to get to net zero, as we heard right at the start of the debate from the hon. Member for Bath, requires low-carbon production and transmission. In the year of COP—the year when the UK is supposed to show global leadership—this is an incredibly important opportunity.
Community energy is also important for other reasons, including for energy security, so that we are not dependent on imported gas or electricity, or any other form of energy from overseas. Increased domestic energy production is safer and better for everyone. It is also important to tackle fuel poverty, which is a growing problem. Community energy also relates to the concept of localism, ownership and democratic control. We heard from a number of the Conservative Members that this process could be seen as part of what is supposed to be the Government’s levelling-up agenda—I think the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) said that, and he was quite right to do so. We also heard about international examples; Germany and Denmark were referred to by a number of Members, including the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). All of that speaks to the economic benefit that can be gained by local energy production companies. Employment opportunities also come with community energy, in installation, management, maintenance and so on. It is a win-win situation.
The Scottish Government fully back and fully reflect all of those positions, particularly the importance of decarbonising the entire energy system. Their most recent local energy strategy was published in January 2021 and says that the Scottish Government
“recognises that local energy cannot be delivered in isolation. It is not a standalone policy, but one that integrates and aligns with other key policies, including energy efficiency, eradicating fuel poverty, heat decarbonisation, local heat and energy efficiency strategies, and consumer protection. It will develop alongside and within a vibrant national energy network.”
The Scottish Government had a target of 500 MW of community and locally owned energy by 2020; that amount has been exceeded, so now we intend to increase the target to 1 GW for 2020 and 2 GW for 2030. Progress towards these targets has been positive, but changes to some of the UK Government’s subsidies, not least the closure of the feed-in tariff scheme, has undermined that progress. However, we continue to encourage shared ownership models as a means of increasing community-led involvement in commercial projects.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar will be very happy to hear—indeed, I am sure he already knows—that the Scottish Government are particularly committed to helping the communities on our islands to become carbon-neutral. Indeed, some of the pioneering work in this area has been done on the Isle of Gigha, with its early adoption of wind power. The SNP manifesto for the recent Scottish election said quite clearly:
“We support Carbon Neutral Islands which would be in the vanguard of reaching net zero emissions targets by 2045. This will include pilots for some islands to run on 100% renewable energy, to create circular economies tackling and processing waste, and exploring more sustainable transport options. We will work with at least 3 islands over this Parliament to enable them to become fully carbon neutral by 2040.”
My hon. Friend has the opportunity to lobby for many of the islands he represents in his archipelago to take part in that pilot.
That brings us to the Government. The short question coming from all hon. Members is, why not? What is the harm? I thought the Tory Government was supposed to believe in the free market, entrepreneurship and the flourishing of local enterprise, so why do they seem to be in hock to the big players? Why are they in hock to the traditional companies, who perhaps have the most to lose?
The simple ask coming from Members today is to let the Local Electricity Bill progress. It has wide cross-party support and a wide range of civil society support, from the Churches through to different manufacturers of the technology that would be used, and more. The Bill provides a very simple framework that would overcome existing barriers to entry into the market.
There are other things the Government could be doing as well. They could look at a replacement for the feed-in tariff that was so important in bringing so much renewable energy to the market in the first place. They could also help to stimulate demand for better local, greener energy by diverting funding away from damaging new nuclear technologies.
At the end of the day, much of this is about a vision—a vision for a fairer, cleaner, greener, locally led energy future. Unfortunately, that seems to be a vision that the UK Government are currently sorely lacking.
I was not going to say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David, because everyone has said that already, so please take it as read—well, I have actually said it now, so it is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. [Laughter.]
We have had a powerful debate this afternoon, put forward by a number of hon. Members who clearly know what they are talking about and who have a substantial dedication to the idea that we should be able to get a substantial part of our energy by local means—by local people, in local areas, providing for their own energy needs and taking part in those arrangements. I am not particularly precious about who is to organise those local arrangements, be they co-operatives, collections of individuals, community enterprises, local authorities acting in partnership with those with those bodies or, indeed, a variety of bodies coming together and developing that local energy for local purposes.
The benefits of that are pretty self-evident. Not only is there a completely different stream for developing the renewable and low-carbon energy that we need, but that method of providing for our energy future does wonders for the ownership of that low-carbon energy, in terms of the close relationship that it provides between people consuming energy and providing for their energy at the same time. The notion of community energy really does fulfil one of the central things that the Climate Change Committee has been talking about recently, which is the need for behavioural changes as far as low-carbon living is concerned. Surely, an arrangement whereby people are producing, owning and consuming their own low-carbon energy is, or should be, a prime example of that behavioural change in action as far as our climate change targets are concerned.
However, as hon. Members have said this afternoon, that clear vision has tremendous barriers set in front of it. As has been set out this afternoon, those are manifold, and I could add substantially to that list. In essence, we can say that the barriers are threefold. First, in terms of getting any sort of enterprise going locally, there are tremendous issues with funding and the cost of entering the market. Hon. Members this afternoon have mentioned estimates of about £1 million for getting a local licensed arrangement under way, so it is completely out of the reach of the vast majority of people who want to set up such an enterprise at local level.
Secondly, we have the view taken by Ofgem, and I am afraid the Government, on the nature of electricity, which is that electricity consists of electrons that should travel from John O’Groats to Land’s End and back again, and be taxed and charged as if that is what they had done, when in fact local energy completely overturns that model. Electrons in the case of electricity, or the heat that is produced, is produced locally and consumed just down the road, and the whole loop is closed as far as that local energy is concerned. Yet the arrangements that we have in this country, strengthened by Ofgem’s targeted reviews and various other activities recently, mean that we should be charged as though it were entirely a national endeavour. Indeed, the licensing for local energy makes the same assumption. The Minister might mention moves to put geographically situated licences in place, but in general the licence is assumed to be on a national basis. We saw with some local energy retail companies that the licences they had to operate were as if they were operating on an entirely national basis.
Then we have the central issue that it is not possible in this country simply to produce electricity and sell it to a next-door neighbour, the person down the road or collectively for the local good. We cannot do that at the moment, and this is where the Local Electricity Bill, mentioned by various hon. Members, comes to the fore. I had concerns about the Bill’s previous iteration—about the problem that might arise within the arrangements in it for unleashing high-carbon energy into a local environment, rather than the low-carbon energy that we need to produce. So I would not like to see any local energy Bill enable local diesel reciprocating engines to come forward as a local energy supply when what we want is to decarbonise our electricity supply. I am delighted to see that the promoters of the Bill have now put a carbon intensity clause into it, which resolves that problem.
We now have in front of us a Bill that really could cut through the problem of how local energy can be produced, generated, transmitted and consumed locally. It is a Bill that every hon. Member with an interest in this area ought to fully support. Having said that, it really should not be promoted by a group of people hoping to get some traction in Parliament. It has not got support from any of the top 20 people in the private Members’ Bill ballot, and is therefore not likely to make progress in Parliament this year. It should be promoted by the Government, who ought to be putting it forward as their plan for community and local energy.
In that context, I continue to be dismayed that there exists no Government community energy strategy. I will not suggest a guessing game for how many mentions of community and local energy were in the recently published energy White Paper, but if anybody were to guess “one”, they would be roughly right. There is no community energy strategy, and it does not look like there will be one in the near future, but we have had them before. Historically, this country has had community energy strategies, such as the one in 2014, which projected that by 2020—meaning now—with the removal of the barriers to community and local energy that I have mentioned, and by putting in place other arrangements to support it, we could have had about 3 GW of energy being supplied by local projects. As hon. Members have mentioned, only around a tenth of that is supplied by brave and dedicated local community energy projects, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), which have defied the odds and pushed forward their projects in hydro, wind and the various other things that are happening locally.
We can no longer be in the position of hoping that some dedicated community activists try to defeat the odds on community and local energy. It needs to be mainstream in Government, with full support and the breaking down of barriers at Government level on the basis of a strategy to really get that community and local energy going for the good of all of us and our communities, as well as for our local energy resources and our low-carbon future overall. I hope the Minister will tell us that the Government intend to start taking that on board and to give local energy the support, promotion and backing that it really needs for the future.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this important debate. I am representing the Department in place of the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). As I am taking part virtually, I am unable to take any interventions, but I will happily write to people if they have specific questions that are not covered in my remarks.
I reassure the House that this Government absolutely recognise the valuable role that community and local renewable energy projects can and do play in supporting the UK’s national net zero targets. I know that all Members will agree that excellent work is already under way in the community energy sector. We have heard about a number of such projects from several hon. Members, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) and for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), and the hon. Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain).
We need only look at the recent state of the sector report by Community Energy England, which identified 424 active community energy organisations across the United Kingdom run by 396 volunteers, to note that community energy projects can contribute to achieving net zero, not only by stimulating clean growth, but by acting as catalysts for raising awareness. As the hon. Member for Bath and my hon. Friend for Barrow and Furness pointed out, the promotion of behaviour change and the ability to build communities is a key outcome for us to achieve our 2050 goals.[Official Report, 12 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 1MC.]
To support community energy projects, the Government currently fund the rural community energy fund. The £10 million scheme supports rural communities in England to develop renewable energy projects, which provide economic and social benefits to the community. Since the fund’s launch in 2019, it has received 1,214 inquiries and 188 applications, and it has awarded more than £4.5 million in grants to projects focusing on a variety of technologies, including solar, wind, low-carbon heating and electric vehicle charging.
Many Members spoke about the recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into community energy and its several recommendations. As many Members will be aware, the Secretary of State published a response last month—it can be viewed on the EAC website—and stated that we are considering future plans for community energy in the net zero strategy, which will be published later this year. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam mentioned, we will draw on evidence from this country and around the world when assessing the most effective way of meeting our net zero goals.
Many Members also spoke about the Local Electricity Bill and the need to establish a right to local supply, which would allow electricity generators to sell their power directly to local consumers. That Bill sought to establish that right through the creation of a local supply licence and to ensure that the costs and complexities of being a local energy supplier are proportionate to the scale of its operation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) stated, the Local Electricity Bill was unsuccessful in receiving a Second Reading in the previous Session. While the Government agreed with its broad intentions, we did not support the Bill as a means to enable local energy supply. There is already flexibility in how Ofgem regulates energy supply to allow for local suppliers. Ofgem has powers to award supply licences that are restricted to specified geographies and/or types of premises. However, many Members have observed that, while the right to local supply exists, the costs of becoming a supplier currently act as a barrier to entering the market.
Making more substantial changes to the licensing framework to suit specific business models may create even wider distortion elsewhere in the energy system. Artificially reducing network costs for local energy suppliers, as the Bill appeared to suggest, would be distortive. It would mean higher costs falling on to consumers, with costs increasing as more local suppliers entered the market. It is important that we take a broad view of all consumers when making changes to the energy market, including consumer protection measures, which form an important part of the supply licence.
The Government support the development of new business models to supply energy consumers and to help achieve our net zero ambition. The 2020 energy White Paper committed the Government to review the overall energy retail market regulatory framework. That review will assess the changes that may be needed to ensure that the framework is fit for purpose and allows new business models to come forward. We will engage closely with community energy stakeholders as part of the review, and I welcome the various offers from Members today.
To support the establishment of more local energy schemes, we will also continue to look at a full range of other options to support local involvement in tackling climate change in the net zero strategy, which will set out how we will meet our net zero goals overall. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney raised several additional points, and I look forward to receiving and responding to his letter.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South suggested, I am happy to recognise the role that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland play in taking forward community energy projects. I was interested to learn from the hon. Member for North East Fife about the community-owned project on Orkney. I note that community energy is a devolved policy, and each nation has different policies and financial support. Indeed, they may use different definitions of community energy. The hon. Member for Bristol North West asked for information on the role of the shared prosperity fund and, again, I will be pleased to write to him in response.
This debate is testament to the fact that there is clear cross-party support and a growing appetite for community energy. I close by reiterating that this Government are supportive of community energy. We absolutely understand that communities are key to the Department’s wider efforts to decarbonise the country and create a cleaner, greener future for us all. I thank the hon. Member for Bath once again for securing this important debate.
I thank everybody for their powerful contributions this afternoon. There is clearly widespread cross-party support for community energy from all corners of the nation and fantastic enthusiasm in our communities. We have put the Local Electricity Bill, which everybody has supported today, at the centre of this debate. While I hear that the Government are in favour of local communities getting involved in projects and local energy supply in principle, it was disappointing not to hear the Government give consent to the principle at the heart of the Bill—the right to local supply.
Sir David, I fear that there will be another Westminster Hall debate, or a bigger debate, because, as someone else said, the Government always say no before they say yes. Let us not give up. Unleashing the potential for community energy and offering support in principle for local supply is where we need to get to in the end. I thank all Members and the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered enabling community energy.
Covid-19: Effect on Retirement Communities
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
I am sure that Members are acquainted with the new arrangements, and as we are a small group, I will not read out the whole script that I have here to make you aware of the new arrangements. I will just say this. Those participating virtually must keep their camera on throughout the debate and be present; unfortunately, you are unable to intervene virtually. If Members participating virtually have any technical problems, they should please email westminsterhallclerks@ parliament.uk. Could Members participating physically please clean their spaces at the end of the debate? Mr Speaker has also indicated that people should wear masks at all times during the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the retirement community housing sector.
It is an absolute pleasure to lead the debate. I asked for it some time ago, and it came through my constituents. Indeed, everything that I say in this House comes through my constituents. That is how we formulate our thoughts when pursuing legislative change and articulating, in Westminster Hall or in the main Chamber, what the issues are. Over the last year, the covid-19 pandemic has been incredibly difficult, particularly for those in retirement communities and residential homes.
I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place—I look forward to her response—and to see a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), too. We were just talking about languages and accents beforehand, so I hope that I do not talk too fast when expressing myself here in Westminster Hall. I am really pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). She and I have many things in common. One of those is Leicester City football club; we both support Leicester City. When I saw her coming through the door, I said to myself, “I must make a comment about that,” so I will just put it on the record that we have had a good season and we certainly hope that the next one will be equally good.
The reason why we are here today is to talk about the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on retirement communities. I was reading the background information that the House of Commons Library very kindly always puts together. It refers to it as an “Overview of Retirement Communities”. I want to make these comments early on, because the Minister is not responsible for the issues covered by these comments; she is not responsible for housing, for instance. But according to the Associated Retirement Community Operators, there are currently some 70,000 housing-with-care units in the UK. The sector is an emerging one and currently much smaller than the traditional retirement housing sector, which has 440,000 units. The briefing says:
“There is an uneven distribution across market segments, with 66% of UK Retirement Community properties available for affordable…rent.”
The point that I want to make on that is that there are many people in the retirement community who do great work, but there is a lot more that we need to be doing in partnership with those outside the sector as well.
As I said, the last year has been incredibly difficult. It is nobody’s fault. Government responded as circumstances unfolded, and Ministers found themselves having to respond to things that they had never had to deal with in their lives before. The same applied to residential homes and retirement communities. Quite simply, we were not ever in a place to be able to do very much. There was not an experience and there were not other things—examples—that people could refer to.
In a constituency context, there were issues for staff working in residential homes and retirement communities. There were issues to do with families visiting and access to—I will refer to these things later—personal protective equipment material. Early on, I had dealings with staff who worked through the process without PPE material and protection. And sometimes, early on, people were not quite sure what it all really meant. I pay tribute to the people who worked in residential homes and retirement communities, because they put their commitment to the safety of the residents in the homes above their own health.
The covid-19 pandemic has had enormous effects on the everyday lives of almost all individuals since the early days of 2020. Widespread lockdowns and what can only be described as unnatural and oppressive restrictions meant that people became isolated, and even now some remain in that category. The measures affected the world’s economy and limited our access to our families and friends, and especially our access to physical and mental health treatment from our doctors. Life was just completely different from what we were used to. Although the measures may have been necessary to minimise the spread of covid-19, the negative physical, psychological and social effects were evident right through that 15-month period and even today.
As a society, we had to learn to work, socialise and study in a new way by using technology that many of us—and I use myself as the supreme example—were not familiar with. I love meeting people in person, as we all do. There is nothing that elected representatives like more than meeting people, shaking hands and saying hello to them over a cup of coffee, but we could not do that. Meeting people in person suddenly became meeting people on a screen—on a Zoom call, a virtual call, at a distance. There is something—I say this very respectfully—impersonal about that. We did not have the close contact that we had every other day.
That way of carrying out day-to-day activities in the workplace is still in operation. It has become an important way of life, but it is not really what we want. I certainly do not want to do it all the time, and I hope we can come out of it, perhaps in September—we will see how things go. I respect that some welcome that and prefer it, but personally I long for a return to the old-fashioned way of meeting people in person and shaking their hand, or giving people I have not seen in a long time a hug. Those are the things that mean much more to me.
Our elderly population, however, which has been the worst affected by both the virus and the lockdown measures, has seen the fewest benefits from the shift towards these new digital solutions that, in a short time, have become the new way of doing things. Zoom and Skype do not and never will replace that all-important hug from a wife, husband, son, daughter or friend. How much we miss those things. We have all read of elderly couples—indeed, there is not one of us here who could not give an example of this—who have been married for decades, and were separated physically because one was kept, and I say this gently, locked inside a care home for endless months, and the other could do little other than wave at them through a window, unable to touch them and provide that vital human touch and physical affection that we as humans simply need to thrive. Is it any wonder that some of those people suffered emotionally, psychologically and ultimately physically? Some of those people probably died of a broken heart—that is a fact. I believe that nothing beats being able to speak and be up close.
From early in the pandemic, studies warned us about an increase in anxiety and depression and how that would affect general society, our youth and our children—especially the clinically vulnerable who were facing extended lockdowns. Every time we thought we were getting rid of it, we suddenly found we were back in it again. I give credit to the Government and the Ministers for all they have done in responding. The vaccine roll-out has been incredibly reassuring and has given us some confidence, but we do not really know what the winter will bring. Even now, we face a slightly uncertain future.
The effects, however, are increased significantly in the elderly population because of the stricter lockdowns, the higher threat of illness to them and their loss of social support. Social support is very important to elderly people, and one thing this pandemic has done is raise awareness of those who are isolated in normal circumstances. I am very fortunate to live on a farm, so I was able to go for a walk every night when I was at home and we were not coming here, but what about people stuck in a small flat or a small home, perhaps without a dog or a cat, who just saw through the window the person who left the stuff at the front door, knocked once, told them it was there and got off site?
I have seen wonderful work by many people in my own constituency who organised food parcels and delivered them to the elderly and vulnerable who could not leave their homes. I was greatly encouraged. It might be my nature, but I always see the positives of things. I see the positives of the good things that people did; I do not dwell on the negatives, which sometimes can distort what has happened.
My office issued several hundred food bank vouchers between April and December 2020. I and my staff on occasion collected bags of groceries from the food bank and delivered them to constituents who were self-isolating because of covid-19 or living alone and without transport. We phoned them up before we arrived, we got out of the car and left the stuff at the front door, got into the car, made sure they collected it, and then we went. Life was very different.
A group of motorcyclists in Northern Ireland formed the Volunteer Bikers Group and organised collection and deliveries of prescription medicines, which was very important for those people who could not leave their homes. That organisation was active in my constituency and across the whole of Northern Ireland. I met the guys at the shop one day—I was in the shop and one of the boys came over and spoke to me and told me what he was doing. I said, “You don’t mind if we contact you about this?” He said, “Please do, and make it known widely.” We did that. These were volunteers. More often than not they were ex-police or ex-Army, or individuals who had a deep interest in helping—“We’ve got a bike; we can do those deliveries.” They did that and they did it well.
It was not only prescription medicines, but necessities to the elderly and vulnerable. How active church groups were, too—every one of them. People who cooked, baked scones and pastries, and delivered them. Our local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, was incredibly helpful and active in responding with food parcels. People swept into action during those difficult days and did what they saw as their civic duty. I pay tribute to them. The goodness of people always come to the fore—the positive actions of people shone through. I believe in a practical method of help and assistance, and that is what I was impressed by. There are a lot of good people out there and they want to help, and they do and they did.
The covid-19 pandemic had a huge negative impact on nursing homes and retirement communities with massive outbreaks being reported in care facilities all over the world, affecting not only residents but care workers and visitors. Many people living in retirement communities and independent living facilities were at risk from the virus because it was established that risk increases with age and underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or lung disease.
Many of those in residential or retirement homes have complex health issues—it is the nature of life, when we get older. Most people do not have just one issue, but a number. Speaking personally, it is not just my type 2 diabetes—it is also my blood pressure. I am not quite sure what all the tablets are for, but they are probably all related to diabetes. People have complex health conditions.
There was also the higher risk of catching and spreading the virus because of the characteristics of retirement community living, such as daily social activities—which were curtailed—common dining facilities and other communal spaces, community activities and shared transportation. We have a saying back home—I am sure you and others will know it, Mr Efford—that they live cheek by jowl, which they do in residential homes and retirement homes. They live close together, and this virus made that no longer possible.
The more people a resident or worker interacts with and the longer that interaction is, the higher the risk of viral spread. Studies drawn from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and around the world in the past year have shown how the pandemic impacted on retirement communities and, even more significantly, how vulnerable they were to this kind of natural disaster. It is nobody’s fault, and we responded to it in the way that we thought was best, but we learned more and responded more. I ask the Minister whether it is possible to fund research on how we can make retirement villages and extra care homes more effectively pandemic-ready.
There is clearly a shortage of specialist housing for older people. Again, this is not the Minister’s responsibility but that of her colleague. However, the Library briefing outlined three things needed for specialist housing for older people: sector-specific legislation, which we need to see in place; clarity in the planning system, because it is not about building houses all over the place but about having the right kind of housing in the planning system; and funding options for affordable housing-with-care provision. We need to get those things right, and there is a reason for doing so. It is quite simple: the UK’s population is ageing, and people are living longer.
In March 2021, a broad coalition of older people’s representatives, policy makers, the private sector and civil society leaders wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling for an increase in the supply of housing-with-care options in the UK. It has been fortunate that a number of people are doing that, and I believe that the Minister for Housing will respond. The questions asked by various Members from the Labour, Conservative and Scottish National parties indicate that there is clearly an issue for us to resolve.
The retirement community market has been steadily growing and is driven by the increase in life expectancy and an older age group who enjoy better health and financial security than previous generations did. As a result, people in that demographic remain active and able to engage in a social lifestyle for much longer. In approximately two weeks’ time, on 14 July, my mother will be 90 years old. I am very fortunate that she is able to tell me every day that I have to listen to her and cannot disobey her. No matter what your age may be, your mum is still your mum, and when she tells you what to do, you jump into line. I say that gently, because my mother is fresh in mind and body. She still drives her car and is very active. My mother is of that generation. My father died six years ago, but my mother is an example of someone who is very active and who does not let her age get in the way. She bakes for everybody in the wee group of houses that she lives in. She visits her friends and is very active socially as well.
Whereas the spread of covid-19 in institutional care home settings was more devastating, retirement communities tended to be safer environments during lockdown, because they offered the ability for residents to self-isolate in their own homes. That was the difference from a residential home, where people were sharing with everyone else. That is where the problems were. Although someone in a retirement community or retirement home was mostly on their own, they were able to self-isolate and had access to a network of support, supervision and social interaction, which was not possible in other domestic or care settings.
The challenges for those living in retirement communities during the pandemic were real, and they provide evidence for how we must prepare for similar events in the future in order to protect such communities. Age UK’s research among older people shows that depression, loss of hope, low mood, lack of support for meal preparation, deteriorating physical health and, in some cases, increased pain due to untreated health conditions—as we get older, our bodies break down—reflect an issue that we cannot ignore.
We are looking for a response from the Minister about the lessons learned and how we respond in the future. I put that forward in a constructive, positive fashion, because I believe that we all must work together and support the Government as we try to get a strategy and policy that will make the situation better next time around. If the pundits are right, we will have more pandemics in the future, and we have to be able to respond and learn from where we are.
Six months into the pandemic, Age UK conducted a poll among over-70s that found that one in three felt less motivated to do the things that they enjoyed. Two in three felt less confident taking public transport and two in five felt less confident going to the shops. For many, that wee trip to the shops is a daily outing to speak to someone and see a friendly face. One in four felt less confident spending time with their family. That is not because people did not want to spend time with their families but because they were not sure whether it was the right thing to do health-wise. Families felt the same.
The dreadful pandemic happened at a time when our ageing population is growing. Retirement communities became in many ways isolated communities, but in seeking ways to mitigate risks in future pandemic scenarios, retirement villages show that they can provide a safer and controlled environment for the elderly. That probably needs to be better worded: “provide a safer and controlled environment” almost sends the wrong message. I say this gently, but it almost sounds like, “Let’s move them into their own ghettos.” I am very conscious that words need to be picked carefully, and the word “control” niggles me a bit.
Food and necessities can be delivered to residents, thus minimising contact. The flow of people in and out of those facilities can be reasonably controlled and exposure to a dangerous contagion thereby greatly reduced. There are ways of doing it. That is why the opportunity to have retirement communities is so important.
However, the risks of having large groups of elderly and possibly unwell people living in close proximity are evident, and it is important to consider now how we can better mitigate them for the future. In Canada, research showed that retirement homes in Ontario impacted by the pandemic were those with more residents—the more residents in the homes, the greater the possibility of being struck down with covid-19—those connected to a nursing home, and those owned by large corporations or offering many on-site services. The study found that retirement homes with more than 100 residents had a more than fivefold increase in the risk of outbreak.
Retirement communities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can include public housing for low to moderate-income older adults, assisted living homes that do not provide medical services and extra care retirement communities, which have a variety of housing options, including independent living. The residents in those communities depend on social engagement and community and personal activities for their continuing health and mental wellbeing. Those areas of their lives were impacted negatively by covid-19 because social activities were stopped, creating social isolation, communal areas were closed and visits were restricted or completely stopped. That restriction on interaction with other people has been difficult to comprehend.
In England alone, some 75,000 people live in retirement villages and extra care housing schemes, and it is important to understand how their lives were affected. In January 2021, a national survey, the RE-COV research project, was launched, led by the St Monica Trust. The aim of the project was to better understand the experiences of retirement communities and the extra care housing sector during the pandemic, including the effectiveness of measures taken to protect the health and wellbeing of residents and staff. I wonder whether the Department has had an opportunity to see that research. I do not think we should ignore stats—they give the data, which help us to forecast a strategy and a way to do better. Has that happened?
Those findings were delivered in April 2021 and this valuable project has, to a great extent, informed us how the retirement village and extra care housing sector responded to the task of managing the protection of the lives of many extremely vulnerable older residents during lockdown. We have learned that operators acted to lock down swiftly before 23 March, residents were asked to remain on site, and spaces and facilities were redesigned where services and communal areas had to be closed down because strict action was needed. Weekly food boxes were delivered to residents and residents were helped with gaining access to digital technology, which changed how social activities and social contact took place. That is critical. Many people in those homes do not have access to modern, digital technology or, like me, do not have an ability with that technology. I am fortunate that I have a number of staff who are all very good at that. Indeed, I have grandchildren who can do it, although their grandad struggles with it.
The pressures on the operators of retirement communities were enormous. The research tells us that lack of access to PPE for staff and the task of identifying those who needed to shield, had increased vulnerabilities and lacked an effective support network were issues that had to be addressed in a fast-moving situation. That is what the Government were doing as well. The Government and Ministers were reacting to an unfolding situation, and trying to learn and do their best. The job of the Opposition is to challenge the Government, so that the Government can learn, but the Government were also on a learning curve as to how to deal with the situation.
Maintaining morale among staff and residents was also a huge task, not to mention maintaining staff. Some staff were falling sick with covid-19 and finding themselves unable to attend work. The mental pressure was incredible. I pay tribute to the staff and operators of retirement communities. Some of them put their commitment to residents above their own personal health.
I am not sure if other hon. Members have noticed when they walk along the Embankment and over Westminster Bridge, towards the Park Plaza hotel, that there are a lot of red hearts on a wall that represent the people who have died due to covid-19 in the past 15 or 16 months. Some of those are staff, so I am ever mindful of their sacrifices. Fewer village and scheme residents died from confirmed covid-19 than expected, some 0.97% compared to 1.09% in the same age-profile people in the general population of England.
It was a massive undertaking and, what is more, the survey tells us that the residents benefited from their communities and from the special support and care provided by the villages and schemes. However, it is clear that their job could have been made easier. Guidelines changed from week to week and access to testing for staff was not quick enough, and perhaps could have been done better. This debate is meant to be positive and not meant to be critical, but the Government must do some self-reflection and consider how better our leadership through this pandemic could have been. We are all leaders in the community, we have a job to do and we have to set an example. We should be able to look back and learn from the covid-19 pandemic, to improve and do better. I hope that is something that we can all do.
There is no doubt that the covid-19 pandemic has changed our society. Looking at how retirement communities have come through the crisis, there is no doubt that the landscape for retirement communities has been redrawn. Covid-19 has done that. We must now look to the future because future pandemics are a matter of when, not if. What steps will the Minister take to fund later-living accommodation so that it will be secure and residents will be safe? I know that accommodation is not the Minister’s responsibility, but how can the Minister and my Government respond in a way that means they can help with those things?
The most important thing for administrators of retirement communities and independent living facilities to do now is plan and prepare. If there were a headline for this debate it would be “Plan and prepare for the future.” I know that the Minister will respond very positively to that. No matter the level of transmission in a community, every retirement community and independent living facility should have a plan in place to protect residents, workers, volunteers and visitors from a future pandemic. This should be done in collaboration with local public health departments, local regulatory agencies and other stakeholders. We must focus on the components of the plans that address infectious disease outbreaks.
I want to ask the Minister about the direction of the strategy and the response that came from Westminster to all of us in the regions we represent, in my case Northern Ireland, but Scotland and Wales were the same. What discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies have learnt the lessons regionally? We have all learnt lessons regionally that we can share with each other. That is the wonderful thing about debates here. If all the four regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland come here, we all share our input in the debates and we all have a perspective on something that we have learnt. It is good to be able to learn things and take them back home. It is important that we can improve things across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I will close by suggesting that the impact of covid-19 on retirement communities will be that it will shape how we live later in life—not because I am getting closer to that later in life category, but because it is important in the role that we play here to prepare for the future. More of us are ageing, so more and better models of care will need to be put into place. I probably look back more than others, and I wonder where the past 30 years of my life went. They went so quickly. Now that we have all experienced and have a much better understanding of social isolation, important conversations will need to take place to find ways to support and promote the benefits of living in retirement community settings and how they can be made pandemic-ready for the future. We can then use those to improve care home settings, because that is where the scale of the pandemic was felt the most, and that is why this debate is so important.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am trying to remember whether I have done so previously, but I am delighted to do so this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whom I will call my hon. Friend from Strangford. I know he was concerned beforehand, but I want to reassure him. I do not know whether it was because of my 19 months in Northern Ireland as Secretary of State or something else, but I understood every single word that he said throughout the whole of his contribution, and I agreed with much that he said.
It is perhaps unusual that I am contributing to a debate introduced by the hon. Member for Strangford, rather than the other way round, but I wanted to contribute because I have a number of retirement villages in my constituency that offer a fantastic service, a real alternative to independent living in later life. I want to talk about how they tackled covid in a way that was as kind as it could be. Let us be clear: there is nothing about the pandemic that I like. I do not particularly like the fact that we are in the Boothroyd Room rather than the Grand Committee Room for a Westminster Hall debate, even though I fought very hard as Chair of the Procedure Committee to get this room opened up because it can host hybrid proceedings.
I do not like not being with my family and friends and not being able to see people freely, and I do not like what has happened to the more elderly in our communities. In my constituency, loneliness and social isolation have been prevalent among the elderly during the pandemic, and I want to talk about the role that retirement villages have played. Also, I want to talk about the role that I think they can play in the future provision of health and social care.
By retirement villages, I mean places with independent living: campus-based community living, but each individual or couple living independently. People have their own home and their own furniture. It is equipped for them to live the way they want to live, but in a communal setting. There are shared communal facilities with club rooms, restaurants, hairdressers, gyms and spas, and sometimes even swimming pools in what we might call the more desirable accommodation. They offer an alternative way of life for those who are post their careers, an alternative that perhaps means they can have a longer independent life than they might have had if they had stayed in their own homes.
As I say, I have a number of retirement villages in Staffordshire Moorlands. We have an older-than-average population, demographically, by which I mean that proportionally, there are more people aged over 55 in my constituency than there are in others. We therefore have an awful lot of traditional retirement homes, traditional care homes, traditional home care services and the housing with care alternative—independent living. One that I have visited on a number of occasions is Bagnall Heights. For people travelling into the moorlands through Light Oaks, Bagnall is the first village that they see after leaving Stoke-on-Trent. In fact, Bagnall Heights could be called the gateway to Staffordshire Moorlands. It is owned by the Vincent family, David and Phil, and run by the fantastic Sue Clarke.
I have had many visits to Bagnall Heights, and I have always been made incredibly welcome. I have also always been incredibly challenged by the residents, who very much enjoy getting a politician in and grilling them. They have had a difficult time during covid, as has everybody. Sue Clarke contacted me thanks to the work of Councillor Sybil Ralphs MBE, who is leader of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and represents Bagnall at ward level. I will read out what Sue said, because she put it incredibly well and there is no point trying to paraphrase her. She said:
“Here at Bagnall Heights we have done amazingly well as we went in lockdown as soon as we had the information and as we were in a gated complex, we were able to monitor anyone coming in and out. We have always had plenty of PPE available and always done temperature checks on everyone and we have never let our care staff go home in uniforms since we opened.”
That is not just during covid; it is a full-stop thing for Bagnall Heights. She continued:
“We arranged for all residents and staff to have Covid Vaccinations”.
Sue said that residents had both by May and staff had both by April 2021, and she went on:
“We have done shopping for residents to cut the risk of families coming on site and we have managed to keep our residents all safe by working together as a community and with the help of excellent staff working all hours this has worked well.
We only let deliveries come to reception and leave everything with us so we were able to deliver to residents’ homes. The same with milk and papers. We have always had a good relationship with our 84 residents and were able to keep a close eye on everyone and know if they were feeling low and we were there to offer support with care needs or just as a friend. The families and friends of our residents know that they only need to call the manager if they needed to pass anything on or ask our advice on anything.
Here at Bagnall Heights we are set in beautiful gardens”—
I can absolutely vouch for that—
“and were able when restrictions were lifted to organise Sir Lee Pearson”,
who is one of our local celebrities, and a Paralympic gold medallist several times over,
“to come and give us a dressage with his gold medal Olympic winning horse Zion, and a local band playing in the gardens and all the residents were able to sit in the grounds at social distance and have a wonderful afternoon with ice cream van that they went up to one by one to stay safe. We also had meals delivered by local pubs/chip shops and we delivered them to the residents to keep everyone safe.
We also did Quizzes weekly and raffles and exchanged cheques for cash so they did not go short of anything they wanted.
We are registered with the county council to do weekly Lateral flow tests for our residents and twice weekly for staff and staff also have one PCR test a week. Before this we had them delivered and registered with the NHS.
We have now organised 6 residents per day to go in the lounge together for chats and to let us monitor track and trace if we did ever have anyone to test positive. This also lets us do a thorough clean each day. We have always done touch point cleaning 3 times a day on a rota throughout the pandemic. We make the Paramedics and Doctors smile when they come as they say we are the only ones that check their temperatures before letting them enter.
We all work as a team and to get through this we must appreciate that the government have had very hard decisions to make and need us all to help and work with each other. This has been so hard and now we all feel that we must try to get back to some normality.
It has been my pleasure working with such dedicated and loyal staff in such difficult circumstances, and for a company that cares. Bagnall Heights is more than just a retirement Village that offers care.”
That was Sue Clarke, the estate manager for Bagnall Heights. Once David Vincent found out that this debate was happening, he called to make sure that we heard from him. He made it clear that Bagnall Heights had taken a very proactive approach. He said that if a resident had to attend hospital, for whatever reason, the staff made sure that the resident went into their independent, private home and isolated for the requisite number of days before they went to hospital, and a designated carer moved into their home to isolate with them and look after them. He says they are a well-knit community within a community and felt that everyone was cautious on the whole. To me, that speaks of a real success story in dealing with covid. It has been difficult for everybody, but to hear what the management at Bagnall Heights have done—I can vouch that this is also happening at retirement villages around the country; it is not unique to Bagnall Heights—shows what can be done by a community working together in the way that they have.
That takes me on to my more general points about housing with care facilities—retirement villages. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the statistical evidence is that they have dealt with covid in a safer way than other, comparable facilities. As he said, the St Monica Trust and the Housing Learning and Improvement Network published research in April showing that only 0.97% of housing with care residents died from covid-19 between March and December, compared with 1.09% of those of the same age living in the wider community. That might not sound like a very big number, but when we are only talking about relatively small numbers, percentage-wise, of people dying from covid who contract it anyway, the fact that the number was lower in that cohort indicates real success. The majority of housing with care operators also had no or very few confirmed or strongly suspected covid cases during each month in 2020, with fewer than 1% of residents with covid-19 in any of their properties through to November last year.
I think this is a real model for how care can be provided. I want to be clear: I am not criticising traditional models of care homes or retirement living. There has to be a full suite of facilities available, so that the right facility is available to the right person. It would be absolutely inappropriate for Government, Ministers or an MP to suggest what would be right for any individual, but this is a lifestyle approach for those in later life that I think should be considered more. It is worth noting that only 0.6% of over-65s in the United Kingdom, or one in 200, live in one of these kinds of facilities, whereas in the US, New Zealand and Australia the figure is closer to 5% to 6%, or one in 20. If 10 times as many people proportionately are living in them in other places, we might want to consider why that is.
The hon. Member for Strangford said—this has come from the Associated Retirement Community Operators—that it is partly down to the lack of sector-specific regulation and legislation, but I think it is also down to other things. In part, I think it is because this kind of facility needs to be looked at with a cross-Government approach. ARCO is calling for a cross-Government taskforce. I would urge the Minister to consider that, because this is not an issue that merely sits within the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government or any other Department. It is a cross-Government issue that needs to be looked at in the round.
Indeed, there is a real opportunity to use this kind of facility to assist with the housing crisis and bring it into the debate about the housing crisis. One of the operators told me that every night there are 20 million spare bedrooms in homes of elderly people who are living in the old family home but have not yet downsized. Twenty million spare bedrooms a night goes a long way to tackling affordable housing needs in certain parts of the country. That has to be part of the agenda and discussion.
There is an opportunity for people to move into housing with care, and the attraction is that care can then be provided at home if needed. Care can, of course, be provided in family homes, but they often have to be adapted at great expense. Perhaps people feel they do not want that to happen in their home and they end up going into care homes unnecessarily, when they would not want to go into a traditional care home and it is not right for them, but it is the only option available at the time. Those in independent living—in housing with care facilities—have that care provided at home. Few of the people living in those facilities end up going into care homes. That has to be part of the answer to the care crisis. I am well aware that it is not the only answer, but it has to be part of it.
I am a big supporter of retirement villages, including those in my constituency, and a big supporter of making sure that they are part of the Government’s approach to dealing with the housing crisis for younger people and the care crisis for the elderly. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and shadow Ministers.
It is a real honour to make my first contribution to a debate in Westminster Hall, albeit virtually, under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. As hon. Members will know, I am relatively new to this place. My friend, the hon. Member for Strangford, has displayed only kindness and compassion towards me and so it is fitting that I make my first appearance in an important debate that he has secured. I would also like to wish his mother a very happy birthday, when it comes.
I listened to the opening remarks from the hon. Gentleman, and we have agreement. While we may disagree on the constitution, we can agree that those in retired communities deserve as much importance as any other community across the four nations. I also agree that retired communities have given up as much as any other community.
I note the interesting comments made by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) that retirement villages give older people the opportunity to live in the manner they wish—independently—but are also communal, so there is an opportunity for socialising.
When we discuss the effect of this pandemic on retired communities, it is important that we take a like-minded approach. As the right hon. Lady said, there must be cross-Government support when looking at policy development. I would say that there should also be cross-party support in this place and a joined-up approach between the UK Government and the devolved nations.
During the pandemic, much of the advice from the four nations was that older people should stay at home and limit social contact with others, which meant that those in retirement communities were at increased risk of loneliness and social isolation. Age UK is a key stakeholder in the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. I have joined this place many years after Jo Cox, but I have witnessed at first hand the impact that she had in this House and her legacy in tackling loneliness. A report from the commission was clear: tackling isolation and loneliness is not just the responsibility of the UK Government and their devolved counterparts. Mayors, council leaders, businesses and community groups can all play a vital role. We have seen that. We have seen communities from the Isle of Skye, to my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, to Cornwall, mobilise in order to support and give companionship to people in retired communities.
As the hon. Member for Strangford said, many in retired communities began to use technology. They were, so to say, getting down with the kids. Rather than a family Sunday lunch, it was a family Zoom call, with games nights and catch-ups. However, using new technology has been a frightful experience for many. The pandemic has changed many of our interactions and Age UK has found that this rapid pace of change has left a significant number of older people behind. Some older people have been unable to access computer equipment and others are simply not interested in getting online. It is, of course, a personal choice.
Earlier this year, the updated digital strategy developed by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, in consultation with business and the third sector, highlighted a shared commitment to deliver digital public services that are accessible to all and simple to use. That ambition to achieve world-leading levels of digital inclusion is at the heart of plans to equip Scotland for the technological transformation of the post-covid world. I hope that opportunity is given to help those in retired communities to expand their digital literacy if they wish to do so.
As Members will be aware, the population of the UK is ageing, and we need action to fully support retired communities. Over this Parliament, the Scottish Government are increasing social care investment by 25%, which is equivalent to more than £840 million. An independent review has given the Scottish Government a clear road map, including the creation of a national care service and the scrapping of non-residential social care charges. That will build on existing services in Scotland.
The 2014 reform integrated health and social care bodies in Scotland to enable a more joined-up and efficient service. More than £700 million was invested between 2019 and 2020 to support free personal care for older people in Scotland, making Scotland the only country in the UK to provide free personal care. The UK Government should follow Scotland’s lead by committing to a national care service for England. A single line about social care from the Prime Minister in the Queen’s Speech is simply not enough. During the pandemic, our retired communities, many of whom live in social care settings, need to see real action. While the UK Government dither and delay, the Scottish National party is taking action to deliver in Scotland modern social care service that is fit for the 21st century.
May I also take this opportunity to note that we also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our nation’s carers, many of whom are involved in retired communities? Their commitment and compassion throughout the pandemic have been admirable. This financial year, the Scottish Government provided £8.8 million of additional funding to integration authorities to deliver the real living wage commitment to ensuring at least £9.30 per house for social care staff. That is higher than the national minimum wage that applies to social care workers in England and Wales.
For us to fully examine the effect and impact of covid-19 on any community, Governments must hold inquiries into their handling of the pandemic. In the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National party ran on a manifesto commitment to hold an inquiry, but the UK Government have not yet made the same commitment. I say that not to play party politics, but on the basis of accountability and ensuring that lessons from the pandemic are learned not after the fact but now, while they still can help to save lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate on this important subject, which has, so far, had too little attention during the pandemic. This is a prescient debate because retirement communities, which are sometimes called “housing with care” or “extra care housing”, should be an important part of the Government’s plans to reform social care—when they finally see the light of day.
Retirement communities enable older people to continue living independently in their own home with properly regulated home care services and other community facilities available on site. We have heard some wonderful examples from Members’ constituencies. Around 75,000 people live in such communities in the UK. Around 40% of residents are under 80 years old; almost half are between 80 and 90; and 15% are over 90.
As hon. Members have said, the pandemic has clearly posed real challenges to retirement communities, the people who provide them and the people who live in them. Residents faced increased loneliness and isolation due to the measures being put in place to control the virus’ spread, and communal areas and non-essential services have been closed and postponed. Many providers, although not all, struggled to get PPE at the beginning. They faced considerable staff shortages, and staff and residents reported real anxiety and stress. One of the issues raised with me was the lack of specific guidance for housing with care providers. I was told that they had to come up with a lot of that themselves. That is an important point, as we all know that we will have to live with this virus for some time.
Overall, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford and the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), research has shown that people living in retirement communities have been remarkably protected, compared with people of a similar age in the rest of the country. A smaller proportion died, and most housing with care providers reported no or very few covid cases in each of the months between March and December last year. Interestingly, some of that is due to the design and layout of retirement communities, and the self-contained nature of individual homes. One of the things we will have to look at in the future is whether capital investment is needed in residential homes to change their layout to make people less susceptible to the virus.
Although it is clear from evidence and research that many retirement communities did very well in protecting residents from the immediate impact of the virus, there are real concerns about the long-term implications of covid-19 on residents. Providers of housing with care fear that some residents may avoid seeking support from the NHS in the future because they are still worried about catching the virus if they go into hospital. The providers are also worried about the longer-term impact on the cognitive functions of older residents if they are cut off from family and friends, despite all the efforts to use Zoom and other technology.
Providers are also worried about older residents’ physical abilities, because they have been less mobile during the pandemic. That is part of a much wider issue. We have rightly heard about the huge backlog in operations and treatment in cancer care or acute-based care in the NHS, but we also have to think about the backlog and need in the community. As Age Concern and others have reported, we need to think about the support we provide for older people whose mobility has been reduced. Lots of older people report that they are not able to walk as far or feel less steady on their feet. That can have an impact on falls.
There are also mental health needs. It is not just about not seeing and hugging people—the friends and family they love—but living with the stress of fearing that they will catch this virus and die. As we think about the NHS recovery plan, I urge the Minister—I am sure she has already done this—to think about not just acute services but services in the community.
The benefits for the health of people living in retirement communities have been known about for quite a while. We know that older people in housing with care have higher exercise levels and fewer falls, and are less likely overall to suffer from anxiety and depression. That benefits not just them as individuals but the rest of the health and care system. Research has shown that those living in retirement communities are less likely to go into hospital and have fewer GP and nurse visits than comparable age groups. Indeed, some evidence suggests that the overall use of the NHS is about 30% to 40% less. That is really important not just because the people living there have better health but because there is a better use of taxpayer money. The health benefits of retirement communities are just one of many reasons why Labour is calling for an expansion of housing with care options in the future as part of our wider proposals to transform social care.
We live in the century of ageing. We have all heard about how the number of people aged over 65 will increase by more than 40% by 2040 to over 16 million. Most people want to stay in their lifelong family home for as long as possible, but having more options between care at home and a care home must be part of our vision for social care and housing in future, so that someone can be in their own home, living independently, but draw down those services and support as and when they need them. As the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands rightly said, other countries are way more advanced than us. Only about 0.5% of over-65s live in housing with care developments in this country, compared with 5% or 6% in New Zealand, Australia and America.
If we are to expand the options, three things need to happen. First, we need a clearly defined category of housing with care in the planning system, as the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and the sector itself, have recommended. It is currently much harder to build housing with care properties than care homes due to a lack of definition in the planning system. It was a real missed opportunity when the Government did not include that specific definition in their “Planning for the Future” White Paper and the legislation. They need to think again.
Secondly, we need—the sector itself is calling for this—sector-specific legislation and regulation for housing with care, to give consumers greater confidence, spelling out residents’ rights and the nature of the relationship with care providers. It is also crucial to give investors long-term confidence. The legislation that has been introduced in Australia and New Zealand has really underpinned the development in those countries, which is why we need something similar here.
Thirdly, the Government need to seriously look at how we ensure that housing with care is an option for all older people, regardless of their means or housing wealth—in other words, not just available to those who have a lot of equity in their existing lifelong family home. Currently, around two thirds of housing with care properties are available for affordable and social rent. We are doing well at the moment, but cuts to local authority social care budgets over the past 10 years, including funding for complex services through such things as Supporting People, have meant that the creation of new affordable extra care housing has slowed, and in some cases services have been withdrawn. It is not good for older people, or the taxpayer, if people end up having to use more advanced and expensive care, or end up relying on the NHS.
I hope the Minister will set out what plans the Government have to support this important sector as we continue to live with the virus, and crucially what plans they have to support its expansion, so that all people have the choice, as the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands said, to live the life that they choose in the home that they call home, which will include these options in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and for his fantastic speech setting out both some of the challenges and the wonderful things that the sector has done during the pandemic, while looking ahead and setting the tone for the conversation about wider housing supply challenges and opportunities. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed) on her first Westminster Hall debate. She was extremely articulate speaking to us remotely.
The pandemic has clearly been a huge challenge across the whole of our society, but the sheltered retirement housing and housing with care sector has faced the challenges of the past 18 months and truly risen to them. Managers, support workers, carers and other staff have gone the extra mile for those they support, and I have heard personally how hard those providers and their staff have worked, supporting the wellbeing of residents during the pandemic. I thank all those organisations and their staff for their amazing work throughout the pandemic.
Sheltered retirement extra care housing provides a home to hundreds of thousands of—often vulnerable—older people across the country. Having the right housing options helps older people stay independent for longer, continuing to live as part of a wider community in their own home, with the care they need close at hand when needed, but still—as so many of us want for as long as we possibly can—living behind their own front door, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) said, with their own furniture, for instance. These things make a difference to someone’s quality of life.
During the pandemic, the Government’s focus has been on ensuring that those most vulnerable to covid have had help and support to get through these difficult times, including specific help for those living in the residential settings that we are talking about.
The retirement and housing with care sector itself put in place tons of measures to protect the more vulnerable residents and to look after frontline staff, such as closing down communal facilities; suspending activities; restricting access in and out of communities; issuing PPE; restricting in-person visits; and often, regular and increased cleaning.
My right hon. Friend talked about the retirement village in her constituency, Bagnall Heights, which has done a fantastic job of job of protecting its residents from covid by controlling who came in and out; arranging the PPE they had; extra cleaning; going shopping for residents so they did not have to take the risk of leaving the area; supporting the vaccination effort; lots of testing; and organising some fantastic socially distanced activities to keep up morale, which has been so hard during this time. She says that staff worked all hours to do that. It was clearly a great job by manager Sue Clarke and owner David Vincent, whom she mentioned. I congratulate them and the many others I have heard of who have gone to those lengths to protect residents and to support them through such a difficult time.
As hon. Members mentioned, we have engaged regularly with the retirement housing sector over the past year or so, and all the intelligence we have received, as was particularly mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford, is that infection and death rates related to covid in that housing sector have thankfully been lower than we might have feared considering the relatively older and more vulnerable residents living in the sector. The measures we have put in place have clearly been effective in protecting those more vulnerable residents. However, as we have recognised today, there has also been a downside: the impact on the overall health and wellbeing of older people of, for instance, limits to socialising and communal activities; restrictions on visits; and not being able to get out and about as usual. In fact, a serious thing that happened, particularly earlier on, was residents sometimes not having access to healthcare or doctors as normal. As the hon. Gentleman said, life was completely different. As we have talked about, retirement housing providers worked really hard to get that balance between protecting their residents from infection, trying to maintain as much of the quality of life of their residents as possible and trying to maintain social contact.
The hon. Gentleman talked about technology being part of that, as did the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, and about how Zoom calls have replaced visits for some; some people have actually found that they see more of their family via Zoom than when a long trip is required. We all agree that there is no way that a Zoom call actually replaces being physically together with people; it is not the same as coming together for a meal or a cup of tea and having a hug. However, it has been better than nothing. We all want things to get more back to normal, and we welcome the fact that that is happening.
The Government targeted our support at the sector; we have broadly worked hard for the last 18 months to support the social care sector. It is a hugely diverse sector, as hon. Members have talked about today, ranging from care homes and nursing homes to extra care housing, retirement housing, shared lives and shared accommodation. So there is huge diversity in the sector, which we have sought to support in different ways.
The shadow Minister talked about guidance. We have worked to provide guidance for the range of settings in the sector, but it has not always been easy, simply because of the diversity and the different circumstances that exist. Nevertheless, our support has included the provision of testing, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands said was clearly being used regularly by Bagnall Heights, and that was good to hear. There has also been access to PPE and all the particular support to settings that are more like care homes, where residents live in closer proximity and receive more care than in other settings.
Also, this year frontline health and social care workers, including those providing care in retirement communities and extra care housing, were prioritised for the vaccine by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation in cohort 2. We are now in a great place, where the vast majority of people in those settings—both residents and the staff working there—have had not just one vaccination but two.
We continue to listen to and work with the sector, and to work with local authorities as well, on how we can support this part of society as we come through the pandemic. Although life is getting closer to being back to normal, as the shadow Minister rightly said, there have been long-term consequences from the relative isolation that people have lived in, and from their not being able to get out and about to participate in normal activities. We do not know all the consequences yet, but we know that getting back to normal brings its own challenges, too.
I will pick up on a particular question from the hon. Member for Strangford about future pandemic readiness. He made a really good point that we have seen that this kind of accommodation helps people to be protected from the risk of an infectious disease, for example because of separate housing units and that sort of set-up.
Looking ahead, however, we know that there will be opportunities to look back, to reflect upon and to learn the lessons of the whole experience of the pandemic. Of course we learn as we go, but actually taking the time to reflect is something that is still ahead of us. The Prime Minister has committed that there will be an independent inquiry established on a statutory basis, and that will begin its work next spring. I have no doubt that it will lead us to making sure that we are ready for future pandemics, looking across the wide range of settings where people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases.
This debate has also been a really rich conversation about housing provision more broadly for older people and the sort of provision that we want to have across the country. Housing will be part of our social care reform proposals, which, as hon. Members know, we have committed to bringing forward later this year. It is totally right that housing is so much a part of that work. The homes that we live in, and the environments and communities around us, have a huge impact on our health, wellbeing and quality of life. I want people to be able to live in the home of their choosing for as long as possible and as independently as their age and their health condition will allow.
We know that living in a home that is safe, so that it allows someone to keep living independently, not only improves someone’s quality of life but helps to prevent them from having an early admission to hospital and helps them to be transferred back out of hospital to go home. For many people, it can mean that they may never need to move into a residential care home setting, or at least delay it. However, we should all be clear that care homes and nursing homes are an important part of the mix of accommodation, and there is absolutely a time and a place when that setting is the right thing for people.
The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) asked a question, Minister, which I will repeat. How can the health and social care reform work in partnership with the retirement communities, so that they can devise a strategy? I ask that because there are two Departments involved. The right hon. Lady made the point, and I just reiterate and reinforce it, because she and I both want to see that happening.
I thank the hon. Member for his point. I completely agree. I will come to that, if he will just bear with me. I will continue, but I will pick up on exactly that.
As a Government, we know that we need to review housing holistically, looking at existing stock, which is clearly the vast majority of the housing in the country, as well as new builds, and looking at the wide range of housing options that we want to be available to meet all the health and care needs of our population—the growing number of people who are living longer and what that means for us. Whether people are living with or without home care support, it is important that we remember that not everyone will want or be able to stay in their current, lifelong home. That means that we need to think very broadly about having the right specialist housing options, including those with extra levels of care and support.
In England, both my Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provide capital grant subsidy to assist with delivery of specialist and supported housing for older and other more vulnerable people with care and support needs. Speaking for my own Department, we provide funding to build specialised housing, through the care and support specialised housing fund, for older people and adults with learning and physical disabilities and mental ill health, and £71 million has been provided for that fund in 2021-22. Furthermore, 10% of delivery under MHCLG’s £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will be used to increase the supply of much-needed specialist and supported housing for a range of people with care needs, including older people.
That is what we are doing now, but I think that we are in agreement in this debate that we need to do more and we need to increase the supply of retirement housing and extra care housing and have a broad range of the kind of housing that helps people to live with their own front door—in their own home—for longer. Therefore I am working with MHCLG Ministers, and my officials are working with those officials, on how we can best achieve that. We are working across Government and also working with stakeholders, with the sector, on how we can achieve it. We are indeed considering the proposal for a taskforce, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands. Yes, the partnership approach is absolutely one on the table.
I will come to a conclusion, but I want to say that one highlight of this debate for me has been hearing about the mother of the hon. Member for Strangford. It is a highlight because it is a reminder to all of us that this is about people. It is about real people and about their homes, which matter so much. I have been to brilliant homes; I have been to wonderful specialist retirement communities. I have been to housing and care settings and everything in-between. We need a mix of provision, and we need that mix so that individuals like the hon. Member’s mother, family members of all of us, whether it is grans, grandads, mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters, and, in due course, we ourselves have the homes that we need where we can live the best possible life and live our life to the full for as long as we can.
Mr Efford, I would not stamp on your toes and take advantage of that; I know I could not, but I would not do it anyway. May I first thank everyone for their contribution? I will go through them. The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands brought her wealth of knowledge to this debate, and I thank her for coming today and giving us all the opportunity to hear that. Her constituency obviously has a lot of retirement communities. She was right to say that that is a longer part of independent life. That is what we are looking at: people are living longer and they want to have a decent life as well, and that is what retirement communities provide. The right hon. Lady said that retirement communities are an example of what can be done in later life. I think that the Minister and, indeed, every one of us has referred to that. The right hon. Lady asked a question, and the Minister’s response was exactly the answer that we wanted. We thank the Minister for that, because we want there to be that close relationship. If anything can come out of this, that is what we would like to see.
I am very pleased to see the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed). I know that she and I will disagree on the constitutional position, but I hope that her time in Westminster will be a long many years. She is a very talented lady, and I say that with great respect. We have had some conversations in the time that she has been here, and I know that she has a heart for this subject matter. I was very pleased that she was able to attend her first Westminster Hall debate. She told me last week that she would be coming, and I was pleased to hear her contribution. We can learn much from Scotland, as I have said many times. I am always keen to hear about what happens in Scotland’s health system, so that we can replicate that in our own constituencies and regions.
The hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) made an excellent contribution. It was not just about the issues; it was about the strategy for social care reform going forward. I must say that I was greatly encouraged by that, and I was very pleased that we had the opportunity to hear those things. She spoke about the expansion of housing with care in the future, social care reform and how the strategy would work. There is the potential for both the Government and the Opposition to have collective responsibility for this issue.
I thank the Minister for her response. It is always good to have the Minister in her place. I look forward to her contributions, because they are always helpful and responsive to the issues that we bring to her attention. Today, she answered the questions that were asked of her. If every debate ended with the Minister giving us a commitment in response to our questions, it would be a better world.
I thank you, Mr Efford, for chairing the debate, and I also thank all the staff—we cannot manage without them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the retirement community housing sector.