Older generations

Cyprus is one of the countries that I love. It is dusty, very hot and full of friendly people to whom hospitality is an integral part of their lifestyle.  The island was named after the copper that came from there in ancient times, and was used by the ancient Greeks to make their armour and weapons of bronze. 

My father came from Cyprus and he was brought up in a village called Amiandos, Greek for asbestos.  The old asbestos mines were created at the turn of the last century and the village of Amiandos established to serve the mines. In those days the health problems associated with asbestos were not well known and as a young boy my father, in common with other villagers mined asbestos for a Danish company that owned the mine. Continue reading

Titles and honours for the great and the good

On Sunday 15th June the Queen’s official birthday was, as is customary, accompanied by an honours list. Some people were elevated to the ranks of the great and the good of our society and others, already part of the great and the good, became more great and more good, as their honours went up a notch or two in the grand scheme. Continue reading

Blueprint for a Green economy – the Conservatives’ paper on the economy, energy and the environment

I have been reading a document published by the Conservative Party called “Blueprint for a Green Economy, written by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith as a submission to David Cameron’s shadow cabinet. I have been very critical of the Labour government’s energy policy and in the interests of balance I thought that I should turn my attention to that of the party that hopes to form the next government, probably in two or so years’ time.  

I should say at the start that there is much useful work and some good insights, but writing submission papers is a whole lot easier than formulating and enacting policy.  I think that Mr Gummer and Mr Goldsmith have identified the problem, but have not proposed a solution.  

They point out that energy policy was traditionally founded upon “four pillars” – that of carbon reduction, security of supply, competitive markets and affordable energy. They now assert that carbon reduction is the foundation upon which the remaining three pillars rest.   The Labour Government’s Energy White Paper in 2003 talked about four cornerstones – decoupling economic growth from energy use and pollution, security of supply, affordability and abolition of fuel poverty.

That analysis was foolish and wrong, and the present Conservative submission paper is a better analysis but is also flawed, but not as flawed as the White Paper. Slowly we seem to be getting somewhere, but it seems to take an age.  I think that energy policy has to rely on principles of energy use – which I set out in “the Energy Age” and also in my essay of 31st December 2007, which you can find on this website.   

If you are going to found energy policy on reduction of carbon emissions then you have to realise that heating will be less affordable than it is today. If you are going to found energy policy on carbon reduction then you also have to either regulate the production of carbon or else you come into conflict with the pillar of “competitive markets”.  Unless you discover new sources of oil and gas in the United Kingdom you will only get a genuinely secure supply if you base your energy policy around green microgeneration – solar panels on very house providing heat, local PV panels producing some electricity, lots of wind turbines and similar measures required by law.  

Mr Gummer and Mr Goldsmith write in their Blueprint for a Green Economy that the Government must send a clear and unambiguous message that it is committed to changing our economy into a low carbon economy. Despite the spin and despite the initiatives and publicity, I write as someone who runs the United Kingdom’s largest flat plate solar panel company and I know that this message has not been sent by the Government.  I deeply worry that the Government “speaks with forked tongue” because the real policies – like the zero carbon new home stamp duty allowance worth £15000, that no one will be able to claim, or the highly flawed Low Carbon Building Program, or the earlier suggestion to abolish the Merton Rule, or new nuclear power stations do not provide any route into a low carbon economy.

They simply are the same old policies, with no desire to change and no cash to change.  

Traditionally and as a matter of philosophy, the Conservatives like free markets and choice. I like free choice, but free choice does not enable someone exercising it to do so at the expense of someone else. There is no right to pollute or harm others and so I think that the Conservatives had better embrace this fact if they are to be taken serious on the environment.  It is a shame, but I am sure that energy supply is rapidly moving out of the free market and beyond consumer choice. A free market will take the lowest cost option in money terms, not in carbon emission terms, as will choice.   Energy has to be as regulated and as state controlled in the same way that the armed forces have always been in modern times. We do not hire mercenaries and auxiliary armies but we control our own, pay for them ourselves and run them ourselves as a nation. That might create some efficiencies but we do not want the army to be under the control of a multi national companies, and nor do we want our energy to be under such control.  So we have to control all our energy; it is as important to us as our defence.

There is a place for the free market within what has to be done, but it must operate within very strict guidelines and regulations. The submission paper recognises this; it talks of the need for “absolute” enforcement of energy standards. They talk about the need to invest and stimulate and to encourage decentralised energy. It recognises that the present institutions, designed in the 1990s no longer “support the new commitment to reducing carbon” and the need to resolve conflicts – and there are many of them – so that the energy economy may be reformed.  The time has past for sending signals as to what people should do. The Conservatives, as I said have identified the problem very accurately and I commend them for that. The Blueprint for a Low Carbon Economy identifies and correctly describes much of what those involved in the low carbon economy have been saying for some years. They now have to grasp a nettle which may be very unfamiliar to Conservative hands.

Stamp Duty, zero carbon homes and other gimmicks

Stamp Duty Transfer Tax is a jolly way for the Government to raise money. Traditionally, Governments have used Stamp Duty as a means of raising tax for hundreds of years; it was one of those taxes to which the American colonists objected. If you wanted to become a solicitor eighty or so years ago you had to pay stamp duty on your deed of articles of clerkship – then £80, which was more than the average annual wage. Up until about 1965 every cheque you issued attracted a two pence stamp. 

The present Government has raised stamp duty on the purchase of property. Homes under £125,000 are exempt, homes up to £250,000 attract a 1% stamp and homes up to £500,000 attract a 3% stamp; more expensive properties are taxed at 4%. These are historically high levels of stamp duty for homes. There were a plethora of schemes to avoid stamp duty on property but the loopholes have been closed and if you want to move house, or if you need to move house, you will have to pay what amounts to a large tax on your change of one capital asset for another. 

In 2001 only 6% of house buyers paid the 3% paid of stamp duty but now around 20% of them pay 3%, so taxing homes as they rise in price is, as I said, a jolly way to raise money. 

The Government have been looking for ways to reward home buyers that use microgeneration because these people have invested in personal infrastructure which lowers their own carbon footprint for the common good. I have always thought that the best way to do this is to provide a council tax discount, and if that is not possible to provide income tax relief.

When I discussed these possibilities with treasury officials last year they pointed out that historically reliefs for income tax were very limited. Yes they were, but historically income tax was imposed in a time of crisis to raise money to fight Napoleon, who threatened us with invasion. The threat from the crisis of global climate change is greater than Napoleon’s threat. 

Anyway back to stamp duty. Some bright spark at the government thought up a concept of providing a stamp duty exemption to encourage microgeneration. This was announced in Gordon Brown’s last budget. As stamp duty is only charged when people buy property, the microgeneration exemption could only apply easily apply to new homes, otherwise you might create a huge rush for people to avoid stamp duty on expensive homes by installing solar panels, heat pumps, under floor heating and the odd wind turbine.  

Personally I think that such an encouragement to avoid stamp duty by laying out on microgeneration before you sell would be a very good thing for the environment. It would reduce the money that the government raises from stamp duty, which would have to be made up elsewhere – possibly by increasing stamp duty on homes that do not install microgeneration. 

Obviously I think very differently from the government on this, because the government came up with an exemption (up to £15,000) for stamp duty on what they called “zero carbon homes”. Now I have described “zero carbon homes” as a holy grail, which is genuinely impossible to achieve; the phrase is a gimmick, a marketing device. The definition of a zero carbon home showed this. 

Last month the government published a law to provide stamp duty exemption on zero carbon homes. They have apparently taken my views into account, but the wrong bit of them. They have in the new law created a definition of a zero carbon home that will be virtually impossible to meet, because it would be virtually zero carbon.

Is this incompetence or is there some sinister force at the Treasury that thinks climate change is nonsense and it is not worth changing tax rules to alleviate it? It is sad for the world that the government have let us down on this point.

It is right to be ambitious and aim for “zero carbon homes” and “carbon sequestration” and “carbon offsetting” and all sorts of other things that cannot be achieved from our present knowledge.  Ambition to alleviate climate change by radical means is entirely laudable but those who frame laws and tax reliefs seem to have no understanding on the laws of physics and technology.

In particular they do not understand that every present technology must be used now, rather than wasting time chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  Something positive has to be done now. Introducing a stamp duty relief that no one can claim is not being positive, but simply spinning a good yarn, but a yarn nevertheless.  

You can find the regulations at http://opsi.gov.uk/si/si2007/uksi_20073437_en_1

Blogging for the environment

Many important ideas have been with us for thouands of years. Great philosophers or great religious people have written down their ideas and that enabled their ideas to be spread and adopted. Environmental philosophy is still a tiny embryo. It needs the food of ideas, tested and examined ideas, in order to grow.

Some ideas are undeveloped and need an active and reactive audience to help formulate them and refine and define them. In ancient days the students of the academy served this function; in more more times there often happend a coming together of like minded people, at universities, schools and in religious institutions. Today the best active and reactive audience lies on the internet, and that is why I blog.

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A wonderful quiet December day

 I am writing this on the shortest day of the year, and will upload it later, in case the festivities overcome my task of commenting on something almost every day. 

I have written so much about the weather, and always, I see, in the gloomiest terms. Well today has been a wonderful quiet December day. The sky has been cloudless and I am enjoying the still peace that late December does so well, as I work in my office, glancing out of the window at the Westminster skies. 

In the next few days I shall be indulging in a little frenetic purchasing, some immodest over eating and some sentimental memories of December days that have vanished, along with some of the people with whom I spent them.

The Environmental Law Foundation

If you have an environment problem and are struggling with it you may need some legal advice. Both communities and individuals can get some advice for free through the Environmental Law Foundation. Continue reading