Playing host to a global climate change conference with over 200 world leaders attending (presumably by Zoom or Teams) later in the year was probably not the best time to do a major U turn in domestic energy saving policies, but that did not stop the UK government from pulling the plug on it’s much lauded green deal.
However, it has left Boris Johnson with a major problem to solve in terms of how does he deliver on his ‘World beating’ targets for cutting emissions while at the same time proceeding with major infrastructure projects such as building new roads and hundreds of thousands of new houses.
Both are among the biggest users of energy and they create huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
It also just so happens that 2020 was one of the hottest years on record, with the all important, greenhouse gas concentrations increasing despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.
With large chunks of economic activity forced into hibernation, we did not even benefit from lower business travel or fewer people working in factories and offices.
Builders complained that heat pump installations in particular had been stymied by the rules
A time to impose further changes
More time spent by workers, schoolchildren and older students at home put extra pressure on domestic energy use and our draughty, hard to keep warm homes struggled to cope.
This was the ideal time to launch and deliver a generational shift in energy saving policies and behaviours (to insulate and heat as well as cool, our ageing housing stock) but tragically we failed.
While the pandemic has shown us a government more inclined to order changes in how we act, behave and interact with each other – it remains to be seen if it would also be prepared to order a shift in only allowing electric vehicles onto the new shiny roads, or in requiring all new homes to be built to Passivhaus standards, requiring little energy for space heating and cooling.
But these are the type of steps that will be necessary if we are to hit net zero emissions by 2050. The government’s very public U turn this Spring to pause its support for the building of a mega new coal fired power station in Cumbria shows what it is capable of.
We badly need a plan
The earlier abandonment of the £1.5bn greening the UK programme, which offered households grants of up to £5,000 or £10,000 to put in insulation or low-carbon heating (including low-CO2 heat pumps) has left the UK without a plan for tackling one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
The government promised that grants would help refit 600,000 homes but the latest Whitehall data shows just 95,748 households will benefit.
Back in March, MPs on the environmental audit committee said there was little chance of meeting the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 without a comprehensive programme to insulate Britain’s 19 million draughty homes and switch from gas boilers to low-carbon heating, such as air source heat pumps.
They added: “The impact of its botched implementation has had devastating consequences on many of the builders and installers that can do the work, who have been left in limbo as a result of the orders cancelled and the lengthy time taken to approve applications.”
Far from generating green jobs as the government promised, some businesses offering home upgrades were instead laying off staff because of payment problems.
Builders complained that heat pump installations in particular had been stymied by the rules.
A new Rishi deal?
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak now needs to urgently design and deliver at extremely rapid pace, a new green deal that can side step the massive administrative hurdles imposed on the scheme launched last September.
The public after all has shown its appetite for making energy saving changes to their homes. In March 2021, the final month of the scheme, there were 41,613 applications, the highest of any month.
Jess Ralston, of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said the data showed the public had an overwhelming desire to decarbonise their homes. She said a successor to the scheme should be brought in to meet the demand.
“We can … see that households are up for improvements that were previously thought to be unpopular; solid wall insulation and low-carbon heating each account for a fifth of total applications. This new evidence, alongside lessons learned from the green homes grant, should give policymakers confidence to deliver the ambitious scheme that millions of families are desperate for.”
An area ripe for a new green deal
One part of the housing market which would particularly benefit from a targeted programme of investment and support is the private rented sector, whose residents have carried a bigger burden through the Covid pandemic, with more of them living in overcrowded conditions where the virus has easily spread from person to person.
The proportion of private renters living in overcrowded homes doubled during the pandemic, jumping to 15% (in November and December 2020) from just 7% a year earlier.
This means that more than one in seven private renters are suffering cramped living conditions, compared with only one in 50 homeowners.
A total of 570,000 private renters in England were in overcrowded housing in late 2020, up from 829,000 in 2019/20.
Across all tenure types, 23% of ethnic minority households were overcrowded, compared with just 3% of white households.
Analysis of the English Housing Survey has attributed the rise in overcrowding to growing household sizes. “Almost a fifth (17%) of private rented households have increased in size by at least one person since 2019/20, compared with 9% of owner-occupiers and 10% of social renters,” it shows.
Squaring the green deal circle
Overcrowded housing has been directly linked to higher rates of coronavirus infection because it makes social distancing and self-isolation much harder to deliver in reality.
This was made worse by poor ventilation and high levels of damp, mould and condensation in many private rentals.
Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent Sage committee, said: “You can’t socially distance and self-isolate in overcrowded housing. There’s simply no room.”
She said overcrowding was a particular risk in intergenerational households that included either elderly and clinically vulnerable people, or frontline workers, who were more likely to bring home the virus.
Making a direct link between a new green deal and improving conditions in the private rented sector could deliver huge benefits to many of the most vulnerable members of society, as well as getting the PM’s green credentials back on track before the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November.
Patrick Mooney is News editor of Housing Management & Maintenance