Do you remember when housing associations were falling over each other to prove how ‘green’ they were? But since the recession and David Cameron reportedly telling his aides to “get rid of all the green crap” the funding has been cut and the social sector’s priorities have changed. Yet we all know that the linked problems of climate change, over-use of fossil fuels and fuel poverty are now far more urgent. The fact that even newly built homes are leaking so much energy they cost their occupants £200 annually in higher-than-necessary fuel bills shows how many backward steps we’ve taken while the problem has got worse.
Now comes a timely warning from the official Committee on Climate Change (CCC). It says that carbon emissions from homes should have fallen to 13% below 1990 levels by 2017, yet the actual reduction was just 9%. Our housing stock is causing a double problem, according to the CCC, being not only unfit to protect us as climate change takes place, but also being a big part of the cause of climate change because housing accounts for around 15% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. We could add to that a third problem – more than one in ten households living in fuel poverty because they spend more than 10% of their income on fuel bills.
Government policy, which is supposed to be driving us towards the UK’s legally binding climate goals, is actually headed in the opposite direction. In 2015 George Osborne scrapped the plan to introduce zero-carbon homes, and removed the Code for Sustainable Homes that applied in the social sector. The CCC says that “This has led to many new homes being built only to minimum standards for water and energy efficiency.” Just 1% of new homes built in 2018 met the highest Energy Performance Certificate standard (Band A). This represents a huge and irresponsible waste of an opportunity to upgrade the energy efficiency of the stock – especially as the least efficient of the homes built now will need expensive retrofit work within a few years if standards are suddenly raised, as the climate worsens. The problem is made even bigger by poor enforcement of the standards that do apply, given the “worrying deficiencies in the current system of building regulations” that the CCC point out.
If we can’t get it right when we build new homes, what hope is there of successfully facing the much bigger challenge of bringing the existing stock up to high standards? Five years ago, CIH repeated a warning that climate goals could only be met if we succeed in retrofitting existing homes to high standards at the rate of one every minute. It goes without saying that, having spent that period making nothing like the required rate of progress, the task is now even bigger. The target should be to ensure that all existing homes are rated in bands A-C for energy efficiency. At the moment, less than one third of dwellings achieve it. The situation has arisen because of the failure of the coalition government’s ‘green deal’ and the erosion of obligations on energy companies since Cameron made his promise to cut fuel bills by removing the “green crap” – a measure that would, in practice, put the bills up, not reduce them. The CCC shows how investment in insulation has plummeted as a result. It argues not for restoration of energy company payments but for direct funding by the Treasury, recognising that retrofit work should be a “national infrastructure priority”.
Support for such investment has come from a timely investigation which shows that energy efficiency can provide a significant boost to economic growth. Whereas conventional thinking links a growing economy to higher energy use, the study shows that improved energy efficiency over the last four decades accounts for a quarter of all the increase in GDP that has taken place over that time. Turning conventional wisdom on its head, the authors show that investing in more efficient use of energy isn’t a drain on the economy at all – in fact, the economy would be smaller if we’d failed to make such investment in recent years. The argument applies to energy efficiency improvements in all sectors, but the clear message for housing is that not only does retrofitting produce warmer homes and help combat fuel poverty, it also boosts the economy.
What should social landlords do? Sustainable Homes has just produced an outline of the task needed to reach sustainability by 2050, beginning now. Every social landlord should be taking the kind of steps which it sets out, and this should be a huge driver of its asset management and stock investment programmes. The sector must continue to lobby government for the resources needed for this task – one that is even more necessary after the Grenfell Tower fire cast doubts on the safety of cladding systems.
On new build, social landlords must build to high energy standards, especially in an era of increased use of off-site construction which provides an ideal opportunity to drastically improve energy efficiency levels. The sector must also lobby government to ensure that this issue forms a big part of its building better and beautiful campaign.
Let’s pay attention to the message of hope and urgency coming from the 15 year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. She told the European Union it needed to double its targets for reducing carbon emissions. The same – and more – applies to the housing industry too.
Original post: 24housing