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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 12, 2024


Topical Question Time

Heat in Buildings Bill (Regulatory Review Group)

1. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Before I ask my question, I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, in that I own let homes and other homes that are part of service occupancies.

To ask the Scottish Government how it will address the significant concerns raised by the chair of the regulatory review group regarding its proposed heat in buildings bill. (S6T-01854)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

As part of delivering the new deal for business, we asked the regulatory review group to examine the business and regulation impact of our proposals for a heat in buildings bill, which is central to our work to tackle climate change. We welcome the views of that independent group and all the submissions to our consultation, which closed on Friday. The group has highlighted the economic opportunity for Scotland in transitioning to clean heat and has identified the key issues of communication, the supply chain and phasing, on which we will continue to work as we develop the bill.

Edward Mountain

That is not how I read the views. What I read was that there are unrealistic deadlines, no knowledge of the extent of the issue, a lack of awareness of market readiness and a total incomprehension of the cost to householders and businesses. Given that only 20 per cent of properties that are on the market in Caithness reach energy performance certificate band C, how much does the minister estimate that it will cost individual homeowners to reach EPC band C?

Patrick Harvie

Mr Mountain knows that, in our consultation on energy efficiency standards, we have proposed taking a simpler approach to achieving those standards. That will be based on applying only those from a prescribed list of measures that are applicable in each building. We are confident that, for the majority of buildings that do not currently reach EPC band C, any measures that were required would be relatively minimal and cost effective.

As we move forward with the heat in buildings bill and the regulations that will follow that, we will keep our existing generous package of grants and loans under constant review, to ensure that the support that is available for householders, tenants, landlords and businesses matches the necessity to act and the scale of the action that is required to reduce our emissions from heat in buildings.

Edward Mountain

I am aware of the five items that are suggested. The minister has also suggested setting a price cap and I can help him with that. As a surveyor, I estimate that the cost of getting a 30 to 40-year-old two-bedroom rural property of traditional design to EPC band C and meeting the minister’s requirements as being in the region of £40,000. I repeat that—£40,000.

I am concerned that the minister has not really grasped the reality of the cost and that he does not really care at this stage what the cost to businesses and homeowners will be. Will he commit to a tighter spending cap than £40,000 for homeowners to reach EPC band C? What does he consider to be a reasonable amount?

Patrick Harvie

As I said, we have set out proposals to make it easier, simpler and cheaper for householders and businesses to reach the standards that are set out in the proposals that we have consulted on. We will take account of all responses to the consultation and, as Mr Mountain is aware, we will consider the option of a cost cap.

I am concerned that Mr Mountain and some of his colleagues do not seem to grasp the urgency of the challenge. There is simply no path to our net zero targets—which all political parties have committed to—without an ambitious programme on heat in buildings. The Government will continue taking the necessary action to meet the high aspirations of our heat in buildings programme and ensuring that a package of support is available to meet the scale of change that is necessary. That will be set out in the regulations.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests in respect of my ownership of rental properties.

No one doubts the minister’s commitment to decarbonising heat in buildings, but commitment and delivery are not necessarily the same thing. Developers in my constituency tell me that they are still permitted to build new houses with gas boilers and that they will continue doing so for at least the next two years. How many buildings across the country have been decarbonised since the minister took office two and a half years ago? How long will it take to deliver net zero across the remainder of Scotland’s housing stock at that rate?

Patrick Harvie

I am pleased that Parliament came together last year to pass the new-build heat standard regulations, which will come into force from 1 April this year and will prevent the installation in new buildings of polluting heating systems such as gas boilers. Obviously, building warrants last for up to three years so, at any point when such a change was made, that would have been the timescale for it. We are acting a year ahead of the United Kingdom Government; in fact, the UK Climate Change Committee has urged the UK Government to match our timescale.

The number of installations has been accelerating, but I am afraid that it would make no sense to project how long the process would take at the current rate. The whole point is to continue the acceleration of the installation of zero-emission heating systems. That is what we have been doing and we need to continue to do that. The heat in buildings proposals are absolutely central not only to increasing demand but to stimulating investment in the supply chain, skills and capacity to make sure that the work happens.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

The review group has said that consumers will be vulnerable to rogue traders if there is not sufficient capacity in the market to install new products. What actions is the minister taking now to prevent rogue traders from entering the market?

Patrick Harvie

The Scottish Government-funded grant and loan schemes have a requirement with regard to the skills and qualifications of suppliers that people choose to use. We are also exploring the option of a supplier-led scheme instead of—or as well as—the consumer-led scheme that we have. However, the regulation of consumer protection rests with the UK Government. We continue to explore every option to discuss those issues.

I see Mr Lumsden shaking his head. He wishes those issues to continue to rest with the UK Government, so it does him no credit to suggest that we should not acknowledge that, as the UK Government has power over consumer protection, it needs to act. We stand ready to work in a constructive spirit to see improvements on consumer protection, but Mr Lumsden cannot expect us to exercise powers that he insists should remain at Westminster.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

The minister did not really answer directly the question about reliable and trustworthy companies. What work will the Scottish Government do to help fund the support to deliver the skilled staff that we will need across Scotland? We need affordable solutions for energy and heating options, given the £33 billion of investment that is expected to be required and the current cost of living crisis for householders in urban and rural areas. Where will the Scottish Government step up to help tackle that problem?

Patrick Harvie

I recently took part in a round table with industry stakeholders across the supply chain, and they gave me the clear indication that what industry needs to be able to invest not only in skills and qualifications but in supply chain capacity is demand assurance—unlocking that demand—and that is very much what the heat in buildings proposals set out to achieve.

We do need to ensure that high standards are met. As I said, some of the regulation of consumer protection rests with the UK Government. Under our powers, we ensure that the grant and loan schemes require people to use qualified and trusted installers. We also work with UK-wide bodies, such as the microgeneration certification scheme, which will relaunch its criteria later this year, to reduce barriers to certification for small and independent contractors.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Last year, the clean heat industry wrote to the First Minister to urge the Scottish Government to move forward with its heat in buildings bill as soon as possible. It said:

“To meet the challenge and maximise opportunities, industry needs certainty”

and that new standards would allow

“homeowners, landlords and supply chains”

to understand

“what they need to do and by when.”

Given that clear steer from industry, does the minister agree that calls from Opposition parties for delay and dilution go against what businesses are telling us that they need in order to deliver the heat transition, with the urgency that is required to tackle the climate emergency?

Patrick Harvie

Mark Ruskell is absolutely right. The single most consistent message from industry and from experts such as the UK Climate Change Committee is that Government needs to give certainty and clarity. The heat in buildings programme and the proposals that we have consulted on will achieve that. By regulating—by passing legislation—the Parliament will give a clear signal that it is worth the while of businesses in the sector to invest, as many of them want to do. Many of them know that high-quality careers are to be had in Scotland, not only in installing but in innovating.

Businesses are ready to go. They need our clarity and support on the long-term direction of travel, which is what our legislation is intended to achieve. Any dilution, delay or deflection—which some Opposition members seem to wish for—would only undermine the opportunity to get from the heat transition the maximum economic benefit for Scotland as well as the carbon emission reductions.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The minister referred to concerns about supply chain capacity. Given the steep rise in demand that is expected, does he recognise that there are particular supply chain capacity issues in rural and island areas, and what action is the Government taking to ensure that capacity will meet future demand?

Patrick Harvie

Absolutely—I recently took part in a meeting that sought specifically to get the views of community stakeholders from rural, remote and island communities, who have made constructive proposals. Often, the benefits of the heat transition are even more significant in remote, rural and island communities, many of which, for example, are not on the gas grid and pay higher prices for energy. The transition to zero-emission heating can save them money as well as saving emissions.

I referred a few minutes ago to reducing the barriers to accreditation under the MCS, which is one of the things that we can do. That involves working with other organisations to ensure that, in such communities, small businesses and independent contractors that are active in the field can be accredited. That will increase the ability of businesses that have their roots in local communities and have a degree of local trust to undertake that work.

Creative Scotland Funding (Rein Film Project)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that Creative Scotland has awarded £85,000 to the project Rein, in light of concerns about its explicit content. (S6T-01858)

The Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

I share the concerns that have been raised, including by Creative Scotland itself. I see no way in which what has been described should be in receipt of public funding.

As members are aware, the Scottish Government has no role in the decisions of Creative Scotland on the funding of individual projects. However, I understand that Creative Scotland is rapidly reviewing that allocation, as it is clear that what has been reported simply does not meet what was indicated when the funding was applied for. I look forward to Creative Scotland sharing its conclusions, and I will update members, including Neil Bibby, soon.

Neil Bibby

The Sunday Post has published shocking revelations about the explicit nature of the Rein project. The project previously received £23,000 and has now attempted to recruit vulnerable people—including the disabled—at £300 a day, to participate in sex acts so extreme that participants were to be provided with psychological aftercare; I will not repeat those here.

I agree with what the minister said about how not a penny of public funds should be used to support the project. Does he agree that all the money that has been distributed should be clawed back?

Creative Scotland has stated that it did not know how explicit the project was to be. In order for the public to have confidence in its funding processes, does the cabinet secretary agree that the original funding application should be published in full?

Angus Robertson

To help colleagues’ understanding of what is currently under way, it is useful to read the statement that has been released by Creative Scotland, which says that, although Creative Scotland supports

“freedom of expression and artists being able to push the boundaries of radical performance ... the project, Rein, is considerably more explicit in its execution than was indicated in the application received to our Open Fund. As such, we are reviewing this award and will be discussing next steps with the applicant and with the other partners in the project.”

The specific queries that Neil Bibby has raised are very apposite, but I wish to await the conclusions from Creative Scotland in the first instance. He and colleagues from across the parties understand the importance of the arms’ length and independent nature of Creative Scotland. On the basis of what is concluded in the review, further questions as to the consequences will no doubt follow.

Neil Bibby

It is absolutely right that ministers do not determine individual funding applications, but it is also absolutely right that there needs to be openness and transparency from Creative Scotland, which does. Therefore, the application should be published in full.

It has been reported that the filming was to involve live sex acts and was to be done in outdoor public places in the Highlands. There are clearly questions to be answered, not just about the appropriateness of what was planned using public funds, but also about the legality. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that should be examined, and that, more generally, there should be a review of funding criteria, with new guidance issued for future applications so that such a thing cannot be allowed to happen again?

Angus Robertson

I have absolutely no doubt that these proceedings are being watched closely by those at Creative Scotland, and I also have no doubt that they will be listening closely to the points that the member has raised thus far. I await the conclusions of Creative Scotland’s review of the matter, and I will consider any outstanding questions that have been raised by colleagues in relation to how Creative Scotland has conducted its review, the conclusions that it makes and the actions that it will take. I will be happy to share those conclusions with Neil Bibby and colleagues and, if there are any wider lessons to be learned, including legal issues, those matters will need to be broached.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Will the cabinet secretary inform us when he first learned about the funding issues? Will he be transparent regarding the content of the application, by ensuring that it is published in full? Does he agree that Creative Scotland should urgently review all decision-making processes for funding applications?

Angus Robertson

There were a number of questions there. I learned about the issue over the weekend, at the same time as everybody else. I am pleased that Creative Scotland acted swiftly in announcing its review.

Up until now, I have been pleased that there has been cross-party consensus in the Parliament in relation to the fact that Creative Scotland is an arm’s-length, independent organisation. I am sure that everybody is very keen that politicians and Government do not stray into areas of creative expression. We have an arm’s-length organisation that has very clear rules about how public funds are to be applied for and about their purpose, and that is what is being examined.

I expect that Creative Scotland will report back quickly, and we will no doubt return to discuss the conclusions of its review as soon as we learn them.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Lammermuir Festival had its funding application turned down by Creative Scotland last year. The grant application was set to make up 23 per cent of the festival’s budget, and its future now hangs in the balance—yet £85,000 is being awarded to this explicit project. What specific measures are in place to monitor and regulate how and why funding is awarded by Creative Scotland and how it ensures that culture remains accessible for all?

Angus Robertson

No doubt there are a great number of cultural projects where people could ask, “Why has this been funded, but not that?” In such cases, it is perfectly understandable that people will wish to understand how a decision could be made to support one applicant but then deny the applications of others. Those are questions that are quite rightly for Creative Scotland. The leadership of Creative Scotland regularly attends evidence sessions of the Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, and those questions can no doubt be asked of Creative Scotland decision makers.

Foysol Choudhury and I are in agreement that it is important to have arm’s-length respect for the work of Creative Scotland, and I hope that he agrees that it is a good thing that a review has been instigated extremely quickly. I hope that that review and a decision will follow swiftly. No doubt we will discuss what emerges from the review, and we will be able to weigh up the queries that Foysol Choudhury has raised about the relative priorities for which projects are supported.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I pay tribute to the investigative journalism of the Sunday Post, which repeatedly comes up with interesting and pertinent stories. That should be commended, and it is illustrative of the need for a strong, free press.

I agree with the cabinet secretary on the idea that politicians and Government should not stray into areas of creative expression. However, the issue of how public money is spent is germane to the very purposes of the Parliament. Can the cabinet secretary explain how much due diligence is applied by Government in relation to the sums of money that it dispenses to other bodies, and what measure of value for money is applied?

Angus Robertson

I will give an example of how that has worked recently. Creative Scotland was in charge of dispensing significant sums of financial support during the Covid pandemic. The results of that process are a matter of public record. I think that everybody associated with Creative Scotland can be proud of the probity with which those funds were disbursed.

It is quite right that this case should be raised, and I join Stephen Kerr in praising the journalists who have been at the heart of doing so. I am sure that Mr Kerr appreciates the point, which I have now made a number of times, that it is important for Creative Scotland, as an arm’s-length organisation, to be able to do its work, and it is doing that in review now. Creative Scotland’s leaders regularly come to the Parliament, which gives members the opportunity to ask them about the processes that are in place. Mr Kerr will also appreciate that the culture department, which works with me, as cabinet secretary, and works closely with Creative Scotland, wants to satisfy itself that all those processes work in the way in which Creative Scotland and arm’s-length organisations are supposed to operate.

The situation is under continuous review. We will look at the conclusions of the investigation into that particular incident. If any wider issues need to be taken on board by Creative Scotland or the Scottish Government, or if there are lessons to be learned, that is absolutely what will happen.