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We must urgently cosy up to energy efficiency

By Laura Leggetter
20 October 2022

By Laura Leggetter

Until the war in the Ukraine and its impact on energy costs, energy efficiency was not front of mind. That is not the case now. Rocketing energy prices combined with a recent house move into a somewhat crustier and draughty home, which we struggle to keep warm, has suddenly made energy efficiency a bit of an obsession. I’m inhaling all sorts of tips and ideas from the likes of the Energy Savings Trust (EST), ranging from £20 chimney balloons that can save more than £100 a year on bills, to repositioning furniture. 

Apparently, I’m not alone in my newfound passion for energy efficiency. Brits are prepared to cough up 10% more for a retrofitted, energy efficient home, according to recent research by Santander.  

But we have to ask, how did we get here? The past decade or so has seen a catalogue of missed opportunities combined with lack of political will to tackle the energy efficiency of Britain’s woefully leaky housing stock. My most recent disappointment on energy efficiency and boosting home-grown green energy has been the mini budget.  Experts from all quarters and not just the UK’s green economy sector have voiced disappointment that ex-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng failed to use his mini budget or Growth Plan to announce new energy efficiency measures to safeguard homes.

Making existing homes more sustainable is critical to the government and housing sector’s sustainability targets. Underpinning this is the staggering fact that in the UK, 85% of the homes we’ll live in by 2050 have already been built. This means to meet our goals of becoming a net-zero economy by 2050 will mean retrofitting one million homes per year for the next three decades. Let us not forget that this includes social housing as well as private homes. A step in the right direction is the government’s recent £1.5bn fund for social housing providers to retrofit 30,000 homes of the poorest households. But much more will be needed in terms of long-term policy to enable social and private landlords,and owner occupiers to upgrade their homes.

The cost of upgrading the UK’s housing has been presented by some critics as a major obstacle to a strong national policy to improve energy efficiency.  However, research by the Home Building Federation (HBF) shows owners of new build houses, which have higher energy efficiency standards than the typically antiquated UK home, save an astonishing £2,600 per year on their energy bill. Nationally, new home households save a total £500m on energy bills, according to recent HBF report, Watt a save. This money can then be spent elsewhere in the UK economy, helping to boost growth. Similarly, if Britain’s mainly older leaky homes could be upgraded, the energy savings made will mean more money for consumers to be deployed back into the national economy. Furthermore, upgrading homes directly generates economic activity from installers and equipment providers. All this generates beneficial economic growth. 

Not only is money is saved, so is the environment. New build homes emit a third of the carbon of an older property, reducing carbon emissions by over 500,000 tonnes, according to the HBF. Following its findings, the HBF is now urging lenders to further support homebuyers to make energy efficient and money-saving purchases by factoring in energy bill savings into mortgage calculations. This idea needs also to be applied to all homebuyers or owners looking at retrofit or retrofitting a property. 

Despite government action to try and make energy prices manageable, bills are significantly higher than just a few months ago. While there is some comfort in the recent intervention to cap typical energy bills at £2,500, for households, remember this is a cap for the average energy bill and with the cap planned to last for only two winters, it is quite possible that households in leaky old homes will face even more of a shock from their energy bills in the future. Now is the time for government to work with stakeholders across the private, public and third sectors to build a robust, long-term plan to upgrade Britain’s poorly performing homes.