The boss of one of Britain’s largest energy suppliers has criticised the government’s plan to row back on net zero policies, including the planned phase-out of gas boilers, as a “misstep on many levels”.

Accusing Rishi Sunak of delaying the “vital work of transforming our economy”, the chief executive of E.ON UK, Chris Norbury, said there was no “green v cheap” debate. He said delaying some environmental targets to reduce pressure on household budgets during a cost of living crisis was a “false argument”.

The prime minister announced on Wednesday that he was postponing several policies that he said would impose a direct cost on consumers. These include the introduction of energy-efficiency targets for private rented homes and a five-year delay to a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars.

Car industry leaders called the decision to push back the ban on sales of new internal combustion engine vehicles to 2035 “hugely retrograde” and said it could create anxiety given steps already taken by the sector to meet existing targets.

Norbury said Sunak’s move risked “condemning people to many more years of living in cold and draughty homes that are expensive to heat, in cities clogged with dirty air from fossil fuels, missing out on the economic regeneration this ambition brings”.

He urged the government to “think again before abandoning our climate commitments for this decade”, adding that uncertainty made it harder for businesses to invest in new technology and would hamper efforts to boost jobs and skills, especially in parts of the country “most at risk of being left behind”.

Jürgen Maier, a former chief executive of Siemens UK, also criticised Sunak’s decision, saying the move was not “just chop and change” of policies but “chaos”.

“It beggars belief,” he said, accusing the government of failing in its industrial policy. He said the move would make the UK far less attractive to international investors and would lead to large industrial companies delaying their investment decisions.

“It’s a disaster for productivity. It’s a disaster for jobs, well-paid jobs. And it’s a disaster for business confidence and investment – and we need exactly the opposite,” he said.

The chair of Ford UK, Lisa Brankin, said the move to relax the 2030 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans would undermine the steps the US car manufacturer had taken to prepare for the change.

Rishi Sunak rolls back net zero targets in reset of UK climate policies – video

“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency,” Brankin said.

The UK arm of the German carmaker Volkswagen said the industry urgently required a clear and reliable regulatory framework that created market certainty and consumer confidence. It said binding targets for infrastructure rollout and incentives were needed.

A spokesperson for Stellantis, which owns the Vauxhall brand and its new solely electric vehicle plant at Ellesmere Port, as well as the Opel, Peugeot, Citroën and Fiat badges, called on the UK government to provide clarity on legislation for “environmental issues that impact society as a whole”.

The business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, was reported to have told fellow Tory MPs in a WhatsApp group: “The auto industry says lots of things in public and different things in private”, according to a screenshot shared on the social media site X by the Sun on Sunday’s political editor.

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Badenoch’s message, which was liked by other Conservatives, claimed that carmakers did “not always speak with one voice” and urged MPs to wait to hear the government’s plans before reacting.

Ian Plummer, the commercial director at the online vehicle marketplace AutoTrader, said the expected five-year delay on new petrol and diesel vehicles, was a “hugely retrograde step”.

“This U-turn will cause a huge headache for manufacturers, who are crying out for clarity and consistency, and it is hardly going to encourage the vast majority of drivers who are yet to buy an electric car to make the switch,” he said.

Mike Hawes, the chief executive of car industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said the automotive industry was investing “billions in new electric vehicles”, adding that the government had “played a key part in bringing some of that investment to the UK”.

Citing the industry’s recent investments including Tata’s battery plant in Somerset, and BMW’s announcement that it would spend £600m upgrading its Oxford factory to ensure electric production of the Mini, Hawes said “Britain can – and should – be a leader in zero emission mobility both as a manufacturer and market.”

Hawes called on the government to give a “clear, consistent message, attractive incentives and charging infrastructure” that created “confidence rather than anxiety”.

The British car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover said it welcomed any certainty around climate policy. A spokesperson for the company, owned by Tata Motors, said its own plans were on track.

By Tara