No quick fix: tackling our draughty, inefficient homes will take a long-term mindset

By Will McMyn

Heating our homes and other buildings (mainly with natural gas) accounts for around a fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. We won’t achieve the target of net zero by 2050 (2045 in Scotland) without eliminating these emissions and, broadly speaking, there are two approaches to take. Firstly, change the sources of energy used for heating from ones which are high-carbon to ones which are low or zero-carbon; and secondly, improve the efficiency of our buildings so that they require much less energy to stay warm.

The current industry and political debate around the first approach (decarbonising the energy sources) is intense. The pro-electrification lobby, which favours switching out gas boilers in homes with electric heat pumps, is pitted against the pro-hydrogen lobby, which argues that the boilers should be kept, but the natural gas they burn should be replaced with clean-burning hydrogen. Arguments and counter-arguments are exchanged about safety, cost, technical feasibility, customer acceptability and so on.  

Most of the time, much less attention is given to the second approach (improving the energy efficiency of our buildings so they require less energy to heat).  Energy efficiency is often a neglected aspect of energy policy, perhaps because it’s not usually about innovative new technologies, it’s mainly about boring, low-tech work like lagging lofts, filling wall cavities, and replacing old windows and doors. But focussing on energy efficiency makes good sense: the cheapest, most reliable and greenest energy available is the energy you can save through improved efficiency.

The government will phase in a new “Future Homes Standard” between 2022 and 2025 which, if they get it right, should help ensure that the energy demands of new homes are compatible with a net zero future.  New buildings, however, are a relatively small part of the picture. About 80% of the homes in which we will collectively live in 2050 already exist and failing to tackle their environmental impact will harm our net zero ambitions.  

The bad news is that the UK is starting from a very low base: our homes are generally older and much less efficient than most of our European neighbours. A study in 2020 found that, with an internal temperature of 20°C and an external temperature of 0°C, UK homes lose heat three times faster on average than homes in Sweden and Germany.

Worse news is that government efforts over the past couple of decades to bring our housing stock up to scratch have consistently ended in dismal failure.

The most recent scheme, the £2 billion Green Homes Grant, was announced by Rishi Sunak as part of his Summer Economic Update amid a slew of other measures to provide life support to the economy in light of the COVID pandemic.  The scheme pays two-thirds of the cost of eligible energy-related home improvements, or the full cost for poorer households, and the government expected the scheme to boost the efficiency of 600,000 homes.

The Green Homes Grant, however, has fallen far short of expectations. Only a tiny fraction of the allocated funding has been used and, if an answer to a parliamentary question by the energy minister is anything to go by, it seems that the original funding allocation has been slashed. There are rumours that the scheme may be scrapped altogether (which, in the year the UK hosts COP26 is not a good look).

Government spokespeople blamed COVID for an unwillingness among the public to have workpeople in their homes. The industry of installers has furiously rejected that version of events, pointing out that the government’s own figures show significant demand, and arguing that delays and administrative problems with the scheme are the cause of low uptake.

So, the Green Homes Grant becomes the latest failure in our national efforts to improve our poor housing stock. But there is a key lesson to be taken from other countries that have run successful national energy efficiency programmes: think long term. Yes, the government may have only viewed the scheme as a COVID-related, short-term stimulus, but that very thinking doomed it to failure.

When the scheme was announced, installers were given just a couple of months’ notice to gear up by getting the necessary accreditations, firing up their supply chains and – in an industry that had been shrunk by many years of underinvestment in energy efficiency programmes – hiring and training extra staff.

The original deadline for all works to be completed was nine months from the launch of the scheme. When it became clear that this was an absurd timescale to get through £2 billion of funding, the scheme was subsequently extended by a year, but this was still nowhere near long enough: as an installation business (or another business considering diversifying into energy efficiency installations), why would you invest to serve a market that will be gone in a year or two’s time?

Germany has a great track record of success in its energy efficiency retrofit programme, which has been operating for over thirty years. This long-term approach creates an attractive, sustainable market which makes it worthwhile for businesses to invest in training and accreditation so they can meet the scheme rules and standards.

We need a long-term mindset that views upgrading our homes and buildings as a national infrastructure priority for the coming decades, not a flash-in-the-pan boost to the economy.