Insulating the ‘Cold Man of Europe’

“The downside of the Green Homes announcement? It is not nearly enough.” Green Peer Natalie Bennett applauds Chancellor Rishi Sunak for releasing £2 billion of funding for home retrofitting to improve energy efficiency and home insulation across England, while warning that the funding and plans do not go far enough to kickstart the economy and combat the climate emergency.

Natalie Bennett

For the first time in a decade, with the announcement of the Green Homes Grant Scheme, government money will be going into home insulation and energy efficiency in England. The funding of £2 billion is expected to improve 650,000 homes and create 140,000 jobs. That’s got to be applauded.

As the “Cold Man of Europe”, with our aged, poor-quality housing stock and horrendous levels of fuel poverty, the acknowledgement that this is a huge health and social issue is important. A private tenant contacted me on Twitter to say how much he hoped the scheme would work for him, in his cold, single-skin brick home. Time after time he’d been disappointed by announcements that when he checked wouldn’t apply to his home, and meanwhile he’s left huddled in the one room he can afford to heat.

There’s also, of course, the climate implications. The announcement responds to the top recommendation of this month’s independent Committee on Climate Change Progress Report to Parliament, reflecting the fact that around 20 per cent of our carbon emissions come from buildings.

The government is committed to the nation being net-zero carbon by 2050, and four out of five homes people will then be living in homes already standing today. Virtually all of them need work to get them up to standard.

There’s also strong evidence of the economic benefits. A recent study linked to Oxford University showed that all “green measures” – renewable investment and transport spending, as well as building retrofit – are highly economically efficient, providing more “bang for the buck” than other potential government investment.

And, the study concluded, “unconditional airline bailouts performed the most poorly in terms of economic impact, speed and climate metrics”.

Which is where we get to the downside of the Green Homes announcement – it is not nearly enough. The money offered for Green Homes is just two thirds of what the government has handed over to airlines already through the Covid-19 crisis. Denmark, with less than a tenth of our population, is spending about the same amount on building energy efficiency, on homes that are already a far better standard than ours.

There are so many wasted opportunities, so many failures in policy over the past decade in this area. New homes being sold right now – homes benefitting from the just announced stamp duty policy – are of such a poor standard that they immediately need retrofitting such as being offered under this policy. 

Back in the early part of the last decade, I was meeting builders, trained professionals, who were getting out of insulation, because the last money from the former Labour government support was drying up. They’re off doing something else now, and young people have not been trained to replace them.

We need to insulate a home a minute between now and 2050 to meet the zero-carbon standard. We need people now to take even the 140,000 jobs the modest Green Homes schemes will create – people with skills and knowledge, to understand cold bridges, to understand the risks of damp with cavity wall insulation, to understand the importance of effective ventilation.

We need not just a short-term, low-level spend of £2 billion. We need consistent, long-term investment that will allow investment in training and development, provide an environment for small independent businesses to flourish. For what better rescue from the shock of the arrival of Covid-19 could we have?

The impact of splashing out on restaurant meals is going to depend, long-term, on unpredictable future impacts of the coronavirus on travel and work patterns, the payback at risk from potential future lockdowns.

The benefits of the stamp duty holiday are going overwhelmingly to London and the South East, and the relatively wealthy, rather than being spread around the country. But every city, town and village in the country has decades-worth of work to be done on home energy efficiency – money that can stay in those local communities and support local businesses and workers. It is work that can even continue, with care, under lockdown conditions. 

And a final reflection on how we have to adapt to a changing world, one of multiple threats and shocks of which Covid-19 is just one. Given the UK weather, we mostly think about insulation as warming homes. But as the climate emergency strikes home, the Met Office is warning that potentially deadly heatwaves will become far more common.

Already 2,000 people a year die in the UK of heat-related conditions. It won’t just be excess winter deaths this insulation could prevent, but summer ones also.