Who decides what is “better”?

2nd Oct 2023


Following the Prime Minister’s net zero reset, I had a discussion with a Whitehall government official about the arbitrary 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 target.

I suggested it should be amended in the light of the PM’s statement, especially moving the date when oil boiler installations would be banned from 2026 to 2035. It just seemed an obvious thing to do.

I was surprised to hear their response, which was that the target remains because “heat pumps are better than oil boilers”. That is an exact quote, although I will not be attributing it. I agreed that heat pumps emit less carbon than an oil boiler, so could be classed as “cleaner” but who are they to judge what is better?

It’s a really important point in this controversial public policy space. Should a Whitehall official be the judge and jury of such subjective concepts as what is “better”? Or should such arguments be left for individuals to determine themselves, based on their own circumstances?

This exchange sheds light on why government policy in this area has been largely a failure. The “we know best” attitude smashes into the real world. And when this happens, the results are often a disaster.

Now obviously there will be circumstances when a heat pump will be “better” than an oil boiler, but it is for the consumer to decide what constitutes better. Is it cost, convenience, carbon footprint – the possibilities are many. Similarly, there will be times when an oil boiler is better than a heat pump. That’s something the Prime Minister and I both agree on, given what he said on the subject.

Now it might be that the official didn’t mean “better” in a more general view but “greener” as their focus is on net zero. And that’s a perfectly sound explanation. But with that, comes the argument that policy making on heat should consider more than just carbon emissions, but costs and convenience too. If Whitehall believes net zero trumps these concerns, then given what Rishi Sunak said, he has some explaining to do.