Patrick Mooney explores why this election has to focus more on the environment

Thanks to the inconvenient, disruptive and noisy protests of Extinction Rebellion activists there can be very few adults who are not aware of the dangers we face from climate change and our throwaway habits.

The Government has (at least in part) recognised this by drafting tougher legislation for protecting the environment, on top of its commitment for us to be a net zero emissions economy by the year 2050. 

Campaigners were expecting more ‘Green’ actions from the recent Queens Speech, which was also surprisingly quiet on new housing policies. As housing is one of the country’s biggest users of energy and one of the biggest sources of waste and rubbish, it seemed like a particularly big open goal to miss.

Every year we are told that private rentals lag behind social housing for energy efficiency, levels of damp, disrepair and safety.

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine

Green issues have become mainstream

But with a General Election looming large, it is likely that all of the major political parties (with the possible exception of single issue parties) will be told by the electorate (through surveys and focus groups) that Green issues have become mainstream and are more popular now than they have ever been.

We can therefore expect a raft of new and more ambitious policies to emerge – and not just from the Greens and Liberal Democrats, but from the Conservatives and Labour parties as well as from the nationalists in Scotland and Wales.

When it comes to the part to be played by housing, much of the Government’s current focus is on making new homes more energy efficient, through the materials used and in modern methods of construction.

New solutions required for older homes

But there are about 24 million households in England and even in a very good year for construction, as a nation we will add less than one per cent to that total. We cannot afford to rely on slowly updating the housing stock in order to meet our Green goals and targets. 

Approximately 4.5 million households live in the private rented sector and it is in these households where the biggest potential energy savings exist.

Overall, privately rented homes are more likely to be of a poorer quality. Much of this is down to the age of the stock - over one third (35%) of these homes were built before 1919.

Lagging behind

These older homes suffer greater disrepair, are generally less energy efficient and are more likely to fail the statutory minimum standard for housing. The private rented sector also has the highest proportion of converted flats (11%) and just over a fifth failed the statutory minimum standard for housing.

We have actually known this for quite some time. Every year the English Housing Survey updates us with facts and figures on the nation’s housing stock. And every year it tells us that the private rented sector is lagging behind the social housing and owner occupied sectors in terms of energy efficiency, for levels of damp and disrepair, as well as disrepair and safety.

These properties, in which about a fifth of the population live, are more costly to keep warm and dry in.

More incentives and tougher penalties expected

Ironically tenants are generally not eligible to apply for many of the measures devised by Governments and energy companies over the years. Only the property owners and landlords have qualified and in many instances they have been strangely reluctant to apply for them.

So essentially we need a new set of incentives and penalties, as well as a more effective marketing campaign in order to greatly improve the levels of take up.

Setting dates for carrying out specified improvements, backed up by legislation and heavy fines for failing to comply may be what is needed to deliver the necessary step-change in behaviours.

Better information

Interestingly, the country’s leading price comparison website, MoneySuperMarket has recently revealed the costs and savings associated with the most readily available renewable energy sources and efficiency improvements we can make around the home.

The results of their research allows all of us to make better-informed decisions about which energy supplier we use, but also which of the many different actions we can take. It highlighted some of the cheapest and simplest options we can all use to save money, such as:

  • Energy saving light-bulbs – Fitting your home with energy saving bulbs would cost around £51.80 and could result in financial savings of up to £27.13 a month, which means they’ll have paid for themselves after two months.
  • Lagging jackets – An investment of £15 to insulate your hot water tank could save around £1.67 each month on heating – meaning costs will be covered after nine months.
  • Water saving shower head – Costing around £15.99, you could save 52 pence each month and this investment will be paid for after two and a half years.

Better returns needed

Many of us have already invested in cavity wall insulation, double glazing and new boilers. But it turns out that all of these are very costly, the returns are over the long-term and the main reasons for doing these are probably more to do with our personal comfort as occupiers.

For example, cavity wall insulation has an average installation cost of £466 but saves approx £10 per month on energy bills if you insulate your home correctly. This means you only begin to see a return on your investment after three years and seven months.

Similarly with double glazing, the average installation costs £3,266 but it only generates £5.51 a month in savings. This means it takes 49 years and 5 months to get a return on your investment, but in the meantime your property has benefitted from greater warmth, fewer draughts and less noise from the outside.

For bigger changes, it will inevitably need Government action to drive through meaningful changes in our actions and behaviours. Tax cuts, subsidies and large grants are all among the tools which politicians need to consider using.

Tax and benefit changes

Since April 2018, privately rented homes are required to have a minimum energy performance rating of E, unless there is an exemption. It is likely that this requirement is increased over time so that ratings of D or even C are required for property to be rented, or for the rent to qualify for housing benefit support.

Recently I heard two transport experts discussing the Government’s plans to increase the ownership and use of electric cars. They described as ‘gimmicks’, such ideas as introducing green number plates and allowing e-car drivers to use bus lanes and qualify for free parking in city centre car parks. 

They agreed that more significant actions and incentives were needed to change our behaviours, such as significantly reducing the cost of electric vehicles (through tax cuts and/or purchase grants) and greatly increasing the number of charging points provided in all localities.

Retrofitting changes

I think similar issues apply in the housing sector, albeit the solutions need to work with the 99 per cent of ‘used’ or not new houses, which the vast majority of us live in. This will mean retrofitting the solutions in many instances, focussing initially on the oldest housing stock, especially where the residents are also in fuel poverty.

Another area which is ripe for intervention would be funding a programme of installing heat pumps (both ground source and air source) to replace the millions of gas boilers that so many of us currently rely on.

We should expect to hear more on these and other measures over the next six weeks.

It should at least make a pleasant change from the Brexit debate!  

Patrick Mooney is editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine