In a rare day in the House of Lords, I told my fellow members that I felt that I was in ‘Green Heaven’. We were debating a key group of amendments to the Levelling Up Bill addressing the quality of housing, with a particular focus on energy efficiency and the design of neighbourhoods – including planning for active transport and access to healthy green spaces, and the net carbon impact of buildings.
From all sides of the chamber, including the Conservative back and front benches, I was hearing, as I said, ‘what I and the Green Party have been banging on about for the last decade and much longer’. Greens lead and others, eventually, follow.
I was looking back at an interview I did with Red Pepper just after I was elected as Green leader in 2012, talking about how people were being left in cold homes, mourning the hideous level of the UK’s excess winter deaths. That issue of the health impact of poor housing was picked up by Labour’s Lord Hunt of Kings Heath who talked about the way our society is slipping down the international league tables in life expectancy, with the poorest suffering the worst.
Green policy for decades has said that environmental and social justice are indivisible. By environment, we mean the physical built environment as well as the natural world, and that reflected what peer after peer said in this debate. They implicitly – or in the case of Liberal Democrat Lord Stunnell explicitly – reflected the Green approach that stressing ‘the economy’ should work for people and planet, rather than people working for the economy and that chasing GDP growth is not working.
In the House of Lords, only four peers can sign each amendment, so there were no Green names on these amendments; the fact that we’ve won so many of these arguments meant we did not need to be in ‘the four’, and the pressure on the Government to take action was strengthened by the breadth of support.
Leading the way was crossbencher (non-party) peer Lord Crisp, a champion of building standards, particularly campaigning against the dreadful quality of so many ‘permitted development’ conversions of office blocks and other buildings into housing. That’s through his Healthy Homes private members’ bill and every other opportunity (I offered Green support for that bill last year).
Conservative Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth was impossible to argue with: “Homes with good insulation, a heat pump and solar panels will pay 60 per cent of the average UK energy bill. That is a considerable achievement and something that we should be looking to do.”
Former Tory Secretary of State Lord Lansley: “We should be increasingly looking at greenhouse gas emissions in total, at a circular economy and the reuse and recycling of materials, including in the demolition of buildings or the repurposing of buildings.”
Liberal Democrat Lord Foster of Bath referred to the importance of access to nature. I suggested, following Green policy, that we write that into law and say that every child has that right.
But as well as celebrating the broad spread of Green ideas in the debate, I had to point out some hard truths. Both of the largest parties, at the centre of national media coverage, are currently waging a political duel about who can offer more growth. We don’t hear their leaders prioritising creating a healthy society, despite what some of their members were saying in the House of Lords.
The other awkward truth is who is now delivering the vast majority of new homes, the structures that immediately need to be retrofitted to be even basically liveable and healthy. Who is building these homes in places where there is no public transport and no provision for active transport?
We have a handful of mass housebuilders who are driven by profit. It is the legal responsibility of the directors to maximise profit, which is why we need government controls – and to move towards a housing system that aims for secure, affordable homes for all, so our society works for people and planet and does not keep being milked for profit at the cost of the rest of us.
These issues come up regularly in the House of Lords, where we’re seeing support for Green positions from all corners of the House. Next up is the Energy Bill. Green MP Caroline Lucas is at the forefront of a big drive for solar panels on every suitable new home. Why on earth not?
We need to join all this up and make it happen: this is our responsibility to the people of today for the climate and our responsibility to the people of the future.