Vicky Ford is Conservative MP for Chelmsford who previously served as Minister of State for Development.
Approaching the final year of this Parliament, the Government can identify two outstanding issues on Net Zero that it still needs to tackle: the electricity grid and energy waste.
Both are areas where Conservatives can best demonstrate our ongoing commitment to reaching Net Zero. Most importantly, it’s a chance to show how the Prime Minister’s new approach can bring people with us and hit our climate goals simultaneously.
In recent weeks, there has been questioning of our commitment to tackling climate change. I strongly refute this. At our recent conference I was struck by how deeply many of those Conservative MPs, councillors, and members attending that I spoke to cared about our environment.
Conservatives are often at the heart of local campaigns to protect green spaces or ancient woodlands. They quietly get on with projects to plant trees and organise community litter picks. Indeed, the Conservative Environment Network is the largest caucus amongst MPs, and is supported by hundreds of local councillors across the country.
This reflects the views of the public, who have consistently put the environment among the top five issues facing Britain according to YouGov’s tracker.
Conservatives know that delivering new renewable energy, hydrogen, nuclear, and energy storage schemes is vital: both to reduce emissions and for our energy security. But it must be done in a way that gets community consent. Currently, these crucial new energy schemes can be stuck for years trying to get grid access and planning approval.
Hitting our Net Zero targets will require substantial enhancements to our national grid – as Rishi Sunak has recongised. Yet rows are already brewing within local communities where new grid infrastructure is being proposed.
Those who are concerned about the impact of new power lines on rural biodiversity are ranged against those wishing to see environmentally friendly power being delivered to homes that need it. Both sides in care deeply about the environment, yet find themselves arguing over the best way to protect it.
We cannot simply ignore local communities. I fear that’s what Labour would do, risking a self-defeating backlash against the entire pursuit of Net Zero. But we cannot delay critical infrastructure. It would only push up everyone’s bills further. To bring voters with us, we need pragmatic policies to address local objections and build support.
For example, we should consider both offshore and onshore options for new grid infrastructure, with an aim not to disrupt the most productive farmland. Financial incentives should be provided for local communities in return for hosting new pylons. Planners should target minimising the environmental impact of new power lines by placing them alongside roads and railways or in valleys, not ridges.
Conservatives also care deeply about reducing waste. This instinct should be applied more consistently to energy.
We should be gravely concerned that – despite the improvements to home insulation achieved under Conservative governments since 2010 – the UK still has the least energy-efficient homes in Europe. Rather than leaving households to pour money into heating leaky homes, we must look at what levers can be pulled to lower costs and emissions for households across Britain.
Sunak was right to rule out imposing heat pumps on lower-income households for which they are not suitable -especially while the costs of the technology are still high. However, heat pumps could bring significant benefits to some households who switch from gas.
The increased heat pump grants will help these households in particular. It is a good example of how carrots rather than sticks can be more effective at reaching Net Zero. We must ensure the budget is replenished to continue supporting the early rollout of heat pumps.
The UK still lags behind other countries in this technology’s uptake by a substantial margin. Homeowners thinking about moving to a heat pump often cannot find the information they need or the skilled installers. More should be done to build the skills needed in the supply chain, set standards for the technical performance of products, and point consumers towards trusted information sources.
Furthermore, homeowners will find heat pumps work better when a home is better insulated. Retrofit doesn’t need to involve heavy-handed regulation or big government programmes.
Instead, we should consider tax incentives to encourage more homeowners to install insulation, give a stamp duty reduction to those who have invested in improving their home energy efficiency, or allow landlords to claim energy efficiency improvements as a tax-deductible expense.
Using the last year of this Parliament to tackle these two big gaps in UK energy policy will enable the Government to show voters that we have a practical plan to reach Net Zero going into the next election.