Post-Brexit red tape cutting policies must not be heavy-handed

Why would you want to bring back an inefficient 19th century technology? If Brexit supporters have their way the incandescent lightbulb could be back, says Andrew Warren.

Bring back dark blue passports. Let goods be sold again in pounds and ounces. And shops must be allowed to stock incandescent lightbulbs.

These are among the demands being made by various Brexit-supporting, Conservative party-backing newspapers. From the Sun to the Daily Telegraph, from the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, there has been a series of demands to restore tungsten bulbs to British shopping baskets. This was punctuated by a YouGov poll revealing that 30 per cent of those who voted Leave in the referendum this time last year overtly supported such a move.

The reason why such light bulbs - one of the few 19th-century technologies still familiar to many - were withdrawn from our shops, was due to a decision taken under the European Eco-Design directive in 2006 to begin phasing these out.

Such political decisions are now being readily described as typical of the “red tape” from Brussels that can now be reversed.

Just before the General Election was launched, one of the most senior Conservative MPs, the former Cabinet Office Minister Sir Oliver Letwin, announced that he had drawn together a committee of the Great and Good entitled the Red Tape Initiative, to operate over the next 30 months.

Launching the Initiative, Sir Oliver said: “We need to grasp the opportunities that Brexit will give us to cut red tape in sensible ways. And we mustn’t lose any time doing that.

“So the point of the Red Tape Initiative is to identify ‘early wins’ that can command cross-party support in both Houses of Parliament immediately after we leave the EU.”

There is no question that reversing this particular policy will be one of the main options under consideration. Already much attention has been given to the undeniable fact that both the compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), and latterly the LEDs, which have been replacing incandescent lightbulbs, are so much more expensive to purchase. This has placed, it is argued, a quite unreasonable burden upon, in particular, “just about managing” households.

What receives rather less attention are two key benefits that these more modern technologies bring. The first is their relative greater longevity. The second is that they require much less electricity to provide the same amount of illumination.

And the (occasional) complaint that these new-fangled bulbs simply don’t provide as much actual light as the originals they replace is entirely soluble.

Just before President Trump took office, the US Department of Energy had almost finished a rule-making for general services lighting that would have established a minimum standard of over 90 lumens per watt (lpw), would have included practically every lightbulb around, and would have come into effect across America by 2020. For comparison, a halogen lamp today is about 20 lpw, and CFLs and current LEDs are in the 60-80 lpw range.

While for perverse reasons Trump’s administration has ceased progressing these formal standards (in common with many others!), in truth they only reflect where the marketplace for lighting devices is heading throughout the world.

This is very clearly validated by a simple look at the statistics covering the market for domestic consumption, kindly provided for me by the official trade body, The Lighting Association (TLA).

Back in 1990, when CFLs in private homes were as scarce as hen’s teeth, 26.6 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity were consumed in UK domestic properties from lighting (including domestic exterior lighting).

By 2007, just as all that Brussels Red Tape was being introduced, that consumption level had already dropped by 22 per cent, to 20.7TWh. This may largely have been due to the way in which the Big Six energy companies sought to fulfill their statutory obligations on energy efficiency, by inundating households with (frequently clunky and ugly) CFLs – some of which were actually installed.

By 2010, the consumption figure had dropped further, to 19.3TWh. And by 2016 the trend had gathered steam, down to 14,2TWh. That means that some 47 per cent fewer hours of electricity are being burned now than was true back in 1990.

In other words, the market for lighting had been so revolutionised that, within 16 years, consumption levels of electricity have practically halved.

In ecological terms, that is a great success story. Related carbon dioxide emissions have fallen dramatically in consequence. It has also led to a great financial benefit to every household.

Taking the cost per kilowatt hour as at 16 pence, currently the average household is spending just £87.36 upon lighting. If consumption levels had remained as in 1990, the average home would now have been paying out £164 a year for illumination.

The UK now has no incandescent lamp manufacturing capacity, and is unlikely to acquire any as the export market – certainly to the rest of Europe- will remain nonexistent. Another consequence of rejecting the EcoDesign directive would be to invite suppliers from the Far East back into the UK market.

As it is, that energy saving trend is set to continue. By 2025, with LED lighting having replaced all incandescents and CFLs, the LIA reckons that total consumption will have fallen by 89 per cent over the previous 25 years, to just £16 p.a. That would be bringing a financial saving of around £148 for the average household.

These future calculations all assume that the Eco Design directive’s trajectory is not reversed in the UK. Destroying this particular “Brussels Red Tape” would be about the silliest way conceivable to “take back control” . Oliver Letwin and team: please take note.

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