New support for fracking and a watering down of requirements to make new homes "zero-carbon" have been announced in the Queen's Speech.
The speech, given earlier today, was one of the briefest of modern times – lasting a little under 10 minutes – and featured a list of bills shorter than in any other year of the past two decades.
Downing Street was forced to fend off Labour accusations that David Cameron is presiding over a "zombie Government" seeing out the months until the May 2015 general election, after the Queen unveiled a legislative programme for the coming year featuring just 11 new bills, with his official spokesman saying the Prime Minister "entirely rejects" the characterisation.
Among the bills announced is an Infrastructure Bill which included support for the development of shale gas by the controversial "fracking" process as well as measures to maximise the exploitation of North Sea reserves in the hope of making the UK "energy-independent and in control of its own future and not reliant on foreign countries for oil and gas".
Anti-fracking campaigners fear the new bill could include measures to change the law to allow companies to bypass trespass laws that would require them to get permission from homeowners to drill under houses and land for shale oil and gas.
In protest this morning, Greenpeace activists in hard hats and high-vis jackets sealed off the front gate of the Prime Minister's cottage in Dean, Oxfordshire with security fencing and erected a sign which read "We apologise for any inconvenience we may cause while we frack under your home", and ordered complaints to be directed to Mr Cameron's office.
The bill also includes a concession to house builders that will water down a commitment to implementing a zero-carbon standard for new properties from 2016, a policy initiated by the last Labour government.
Developers will be allowed to meet the standard by paying for off-site alternatives rather than ensuring homes are highly energy efficient and incorporate green measures such as solar panels. Small building sites will also be exempt.
The Government said it was not always technically feasible or cost effective for house builders to reduce all the emissions associated with homes on-site, but the renewables industry said the move meant owners of new homes faced paying for the carbon cuts without benefiting from the low energy bills they would get from an energy-efficient and low-carbon home.
Dr Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, said: "Imagine energy bills under £300. That's what energy efficiency and renewable technologies, like solar panels, wood fuel boilers and heat pumps, can offer.
"But the Government is so desperate to get lots of houses built quickly that they seem blind to the opportunity to give these new homes super-low energy bills. Instead, the occupants will probably have to foot the bill for the new tax."
Part of the Infrastructure Bill will also see the Highways Agency (HA), responsible for the maintenance of England's motorways and major A-roads, transformed into a Government-owned company, which they believe will save taxpayers at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years
The plan is for the new company to come into being by April 2015 and the Government says creating the new company, with stable, locked-in funding, will eliminate the uncertain "stop-start" processes of the past, with the new company and its suppliers having the confidence to recruit skilled workers on longer-term contracts that will save the taxpayer money.
A new body within the Office of Rail Regulation will hold oversee the roads network and watch over costs and performance while another new organisation within customer watchdog Passenger Focus will protect the interests of motorists and other road users.
The Government has committed more than £24bn to upgrade England's strategic road network between 2010 and 2021 as part of a £56bn investment in transport infrastructure and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin described the new company as being "more transparent and more accountable" and an organisation which will drive down costs as it increases efficiency.
Institution of Civil Engineers director general Nick Baveystock, said: "Transforming the agency will facilitate a welcome shift away from the costly and inefficient stop/start pattern of investment that has plagued the development and operation of our road network.”
The Queen’s Speech also mentioned a Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which would set a deregulation target to be met by every future parliament, provide measures to help companies get credit from banks and crack down on expensive delays in the employment tribunals.
Measures will include help for small businesses to access finance, improve payment with their customers, expand overseas and get fair access to the £230bn spent every year on public procurement contracts, as well as regularly reviewing red tape affecting them to ensure it is either effective.
Transparency around who owns UK companies will be strengthened, with a register of ownership, and measures will be taken to tackle abuse of zero-hours contracts and failure to pay the minimum wage.
Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, said: "The programme sets out a number of pro-growth and pro-work policies. Government must now keep momentum going for the next 11 months and not stall just as the economy is beginning to motor.
"It is also essential that the legislation proposed does not load any extra burdens onto employers or remove their ability to recruit and employ in a flexible way to suit their business."
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