In 2014 there are estimated to be 2.3 million households living in fuel poverty in the UK 1 – and more than 3 million families 2 are likely to cut back on food this winter to pay their fuel bills.
Housing has a huge role to play in improving those statistics. By far the biggest impact can be achieved by improving the efficiency of the housing stock itself – but to secure the full benefits of energy-efficient homes it is important to work with tenants on energy use, and not just work on properties.
The scale of the challenge is huge. The government’s target is to cut UK carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Insulating our housing stock to a high standard has to be a major part of this, because housing contributes more than a quarter of Britain’s total emissions. The government’s Carbon Plan aims to achieve ‘near zero’ carbon emissions from housing by 2050. To achieve these targets, we have to insulate one more house to very high standards every minute across the UK. That’s 625,000 per year.
Right now the sector isn’t achieving anything like the right pace or standards of change. For example, the Committee on Climate Change expected 130,000 solid wall homes to be insulated in 2013; fewer than 25,000 were actually done. The case for a national retrofit programme that would achieve government targets is set out by the UK Green Building Council in its report A Housing Stock Fit for the Future 3.
Of course all social landlords need to ensure their stock meets the Decent Homes Standard – but this is far below the levels of energy efficiency needed to achieve the 80% by 2050 target. While for new homes there is the planned ‘zero carbon’ standard and currently the Code for Sustainable Homes, there is no equivalent for the existing stock. The National Federation of ALMOs (arms-length management organisations) has called for an ambitious energy efficiency target 4 to form part of the Decent Homes Standard for delivery by 2020.
The policy environment presents significant challenges. Policy has shifted away from direct investment in greening the housing stock towards incentivising households through the Green Deal. We are facing a long-term problem which needs proper investment as well as a long-term plan. So much reliance has been placed on the Green Deal as the centrepiece of government environmental policy that the extremely low take-up now presents a major obstacle. But could this be turned into an opportunity? The Green Building Council has called for a revived and revamped Green Deal 5 that could be much more attractive to householders if it offered lower-cost finance.
We also need to revamp the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) so that it reaches many more homes and concentrates both on the fuel-poor and on hard to treat properties (like its predecessors such as the Community Energy Saving Programme). Leicester City Council used CESP to comprehensively insulate a low income estate of over 1,000 houses, including right to buy properties. Such schemes make a huge difference to residents because they deliver high standards and hence real savings in fuel bills, not the marginal effects that often come from (say) only doing roof insulation, which is where ECO now focuses. We badly need to tackle hard-to-treat homes such as those with solid walls. Over 7 million households live in such homes, including half of those affected by fuel poverty.
As Affinity Sutton’s Jeremy Kape has argued, the valuable role that social landlords can play in improving the take-up and technical standards achieved by both ECO and Green Deal needs to be recognised by putting them at the forefront of schemes. Many now have the technical skill and customer-facing experience to deliver programmes that work and are cost-effective. They should be seen as a frontline resource. Social landlords have also shown how they can contribute towards the shift to renewable power sources, particularly through investments in solar PV.
While new build is less important environmentally than dealing with the existing stock, it’s vital that we stop building homes that aren’t fit for purpose because they burn too much energy. We should move to zero carbon new homes across the industry as soon as possible, especially as the typical extra cost of building a semi-detached house to the zero carbon standard is now down to less than £5,000 6.
Finally, housing providers have a big role in making the case for change. This extends from the most basic level of their day-to-day interactions with tenants about fuel bills and how they heat their homes, to the installation of new kit like SMART meters that help people understand their energy use, to broader work with residents’ groups and acting as a powerful lobby for action.
Rates of home insulation and of investment in renewables are heading downwards instead of accelerating as they need to. We can get back on track, but we don’t have any time to lose. And as we make efforts to do so, the housing industry has a huge role to play.
Original post: Adjacent Government