Red tape is stopping people from going sustainable.

30 July 2013 — The more I smile the better I feel. Is it like that for you, too?

Smiling, upturned corners of my mouth somehow reach down to my body and lighten it. Magic.

So when I went from disbelief to laughter at some silly red tape it made the red tape less awful – more entertaining than disappointing.

What made me smile are rules to control the rebates given by the NSW government to the commercial office and public sector when they retrofit buildings or assets such as street lights to make them more energy efficient.

Here’s a typical story of how the red tape is stopping folks going sustainable and it came to me this week – late July, over two months after the work was done and paid for.

It’s from a commercial office owner who is renovating the building to make it more marketable and sustainable:

“Yes, all work completed mid-May.

Then forms filled out, followed by some new additional forms to claim the rebate. I met Mr X [the installer] on-site to take LUX readings for every light fitting.

Then Mr Y [from the company able to certify the work as sustainable], myself and Mr X had another meeting to walk through the renovated level and confirmed new LED tubes in every office, activated by movement sensor.

Finally, received the email about requiring a reflected ceiling plan. Obviously I don’t have one of these because it is a retrofit of tubes and electrics into existing troffers and an existing ceiling.

Of course, if I was going to pull the old ceiling and fittings out and chuck them into landfill then I might need a plan, but because we are trying to be environmentally responsible we are re-using things that still have a useful life.

Time invested to date in filling in forms and meeting person on site (I do have a proper job) is roughly equivalent to the size of the rebate! That’s before getting a draftsman to make a visit site and prepare a reflected ceiling plan, for what purpose I do not know.

No doubt we will read an article one day about applications for the lighting rebate dropping-off, leading to the conclusion that the demand isn’t there so the scheme is cancelled…

This sort of stuff makes me very suspicious about being lured into future expenditure where there isn’t a reasonable prospect of a commercial payback if the rebate doesn’t come through.”

The author of the red tape is the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal – IPART.

It sets prices for government businesses that sell electricity, gas, water, sewage, transport and other services in NSW.

Set up in 1992 by the thoughtful and creative Greiner government with the intellectual drive and creativity of the government’s then head of Cabinet, Gary Sturgess, IPART has done some terrific work. It’s brought some discipline and transparency to the finances of government businesses like Sydney Water, Sydney Ferries, local councils and other government bodies.

But its veins have hardened and it’s become less effective with age. It’s as bureaucratic as the government businesses it’s supposed to make more efficient. Worse, it sees the world through the eyes of the government monopolies, not the eyes of the burdened citizen bill-payer.

IPART has high bills on its hands. It was IPART that approved years of higher electricity prices to pay for gold-plated and unnecessary infrastructure works that have driven up our bills. Instead of protecting consumers the Tribunal behaved passively, and at times as the former government’s mouthpiece. As a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Joel Gibson puts it:

“State governments have… been hopelessly conflicted by the fact the poles and wires businesses they own get a regulated rate of return on infrastructure spending.”

During the long drought in the ’90s, IPART sided with government water monopolies and ignored the duplication and waste of council environmental levies that purportedly were imposed to improve water quality. Thus, IPART kept raising water prices and being dragged along to approve price increases after the desal plants and other infrastructure had already been built or committed to, and councils kept imposing environmental levies. This upward pricing practice is now cemented across local government and the monopolies. Let’s give this some real life blood and consider this example:

  • To comply with government and private sector sustainability red tape (BASIX, Green Star, NABERS, etc) a householder or office builder puts in rain tanks at their cost and increases the security of supply and reduces the capital works budget of both the government monopoly (say, Sydney Water) and the 40 odd councils in its area of operations
  • Many of those councils impose environmental levies on their ratepayers to cut stormwater pollution
  • None of the folks who put in rainwater tanks (and by so doing provided public benefits beyond their land in the form of reduced stormwater pollution and increased dam and water supply capacity) were given any rate rebates or water bill rebates.

That is, IPART simply doesn’t recognise citizens who contribute their capital works moneys to the greater good.

In August 2012 it made a red tape howler, the Commercial Lighting Energy Savings Formula Guide. This sets the rules by which rebates may be obtained for making lighting energy efficient in buildings and in assets such as street lights.

To get a bird’s eye view of the red tape have a look at the “Application Process Flow Chart” IPART has created so that those about to enter the maze of rules may have some chance of coming out the other end. The contents to the guide shows there’s over 41 pages of things to do just on this one topic.

The principle or test I apply to red tape is this: does the rule create an essential cost and step to achieving the public good?

Take a parking fine and the red tape for it. It’s pretty efficient. The parking officer writes down the fine, pins it to the window and takes a photo of the car and the sign. That’s good enough for a court to uphold the fine. This is red tape that’s a good example of government being efficient to garner income from a citizen. Let’s apply the test to the reverse situation, where the citizen is seeking some money from government for carrying out an action government wants.

When it comes to making office buildings and public assets more energy efficient – to achieving any sustainable project – it seems self-evident that that outcome is less likely if it costs more to go sustainable than not.

Is it essential to have a ceiling plan or any plan for a retrofit of lights?

Why can’t a certifier take photos of the ceiling and lights, get copies of the invoices for the lights and a close up or two of some lights and send that to IPART?

As IPART’s red tape edifice exists now, there is a pack of folks getting government money, either in IPART’s offices or subcontracted, to go over all the plans and documents, presumably to ensure there’s no rorting.

If the parking fine system is good enough for court why wouldn’t a similar system be good enough for office retrofits?

The answer is, it would be good enough for any sustainability red tape… but – and this is where the funny part comes in – IPART doesn’t really care about or get sustainability. If it did it wouldn’t have made this shocker. I suspect the folks in there don’t accept the UN scientists’ warning that if we humans don’t cut our pollution by 2015 we won’t be able to stop several degrees of unsustainable temperature increases.

I sense IPART will still be making red tape when offices are fighting against temperatures in the 50s and 60s caused in part by unsustainable offices and government businesses.

How funny is that? IPART will have a beaut aircon bill itself then, won’t it?

And it will be taxpayers who pay its bills as it’s a government red tape maker whose running costs are ours. Funnier still.

Consumers can sign a petition to cut electricity bills at www.OneBigSwitch.com.au

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and the author of Sustainable House. He specialises in the design, construction and project management of sustainable food, water, energy and recycled water projects for the residential and commercial markets of Australia.