Subscribing to our award-winning Hub enables readers to receive regular emails with the top articles most likely to interest them

As protesters block our motorways, James Parker looks behind the headlines

As World Green Building Week concludes, and the forest fires raging across the world only begin to show signs of finally abating, the climate debate has reached an unprecedented level of rage in the UK.

And that debate is catching front page news because it’s inconveniencing people directly, but it’s also bringing one perhaps unlikely building element to the fore in so doing – insulation.

Insulate Britain is not perhaps the name you’d envisage for a new pressure group who are passionately driven to draw attention to the climate crisis, but their recent direct action is bringing the urgency to retrofit our homes to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

They claim that nearly 15% of the UK’s total carbon emissions come from heating homes, and are demanding that the Government produces (in four months) a nationwide, properly funded programme to upgrade “almost every house,” with the priority given to social housing to avoid fuel poverty.

I am concerned that COP26 will be a series of ‘cop-outs’ by our government

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects Data File

Motorway blockages

This ambitious, laudable agenda is in the wake of the failed Green Homes Grant, and the Government has its work cut out to persuade anyone it is going to deliver a robust programme soon.

And we are not even talking about new build (that should of course be covered by the Future Homes Standard).

The problem is, the message has been obscured by the methods, i.e. Insulate Britain activists blocking motorways with their bodies.

This not only leads to dangerous situations, but also to people on the other side using ridiculous slurs like ‘terrorists’ to describe the inconvenience protestors are causing.

Often it seems there is nothing the British people care about more than being able to drive their car down a road. And many of us certainly (myself included) take this ability for granted.

So while we now have people panic-buying petrol thanks to lorry driver shortages, we also have some terrible scenes on motorway slip roads, as people driven to extreme measures by their no doubt genuine convictions come face to face with queues of furious motorists.

The end result can be physical danger, and sadly also that people are turned off the climate agenda.

Liam Morton of Insulate Britain stormed off Good Morning Britain recently, like the dearly departed Piers Morgan before him.

He was furious about the interviewers’ failure to let him air his concerns on climate change, including that it would in his view be wrecking the lives of millions of ordinary people.

Instead, in the year of COP26 and with a climate catastrophe upon us, they decided to pressure him on why he hadn’t spent £10,000 insulating his own house.

Rebellious offshoot

The thing is, how did Insulate Britain come about?

It is claimed to be an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, but the explicit focus on insulating homes might even suggest there could be at least grass roots construction industry involvement at some level, unlikely as it seems.

The organisation is holding what purports to be an ‘Industry Meeting’ on 28th September, somewhere in London. If you’re interested in seeing what they’re up to, you can register to attend at their website. 

The country in general cannot fail to be aware of the climate crisis, it seems to me, but they may be at a loss to know how they can make a major difference.

The target may well be more central but more than that, with Covid and a hundred other pressing concerns, the Government hasn’t yet managed to push the climate to the top of its agenda, even with the UK about to stage possibly the most critical international forum yet, in Glasgow this November.

To quote Tony Blair, for better or worse, “what matters is what works,” at this point, and when it comes to reducing energy use, it has to be about everyone pursuing every energy efficiency, wherever it reveals itself.

Ironically of course, with the jump in energy prices, many will be delaying turning on the central heating, which will make a tiny dent.

The power to change

However, the Government has the power to make large, national moves, and yet its Heat and Buildings Strategy, trumpeted since June 2020, has still yet to appear.

Due in October, it has to include some clarity on how the Government will bring in practical support for the costs of heat pump installation to support the Future Homes Standard, and other key initiatives such as electric vehicle rollout and how we can start to use hydrogen.

But moreover, it needs to be a retrofit strategy (including insulation both external and internal) that works, for the industry and consumers, unlike the often frankly feeble recent attempts, in the form of the Green Homes Grant, woeful Green Deal, and highly limited ECO initiative.

As others have said, the Government acted fast on helping the country through Covid, it has to do the same on this crisis, particularly as it has had so much warning.

If the strategy is more warm words, it’ll be a disaster that the Government won’t be able to spin its way out of at COP26.

Working at the local level

The National Audit Office recently put out a report which was damning on the Government’s lack of engagement with local councils on the ‘real’ work of reducing emissions at the local level.

There’s a “lack of clarity on roles, piecemeal funding, and diffuse accountabilities.”

With the Government having claimed a strong localism agenda for years, this is really not good enough.

Local councils have made strong commitments to reduce their carbon, but until there is strong coordination at the centre, these can’t be delivered.

Given the seriousness of the situation, it needs a common framework across the UK to end the fragmentation being faced, as the president of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, Paula Hewitt recently said. The Government doesn’t like this sort of top-down thinking however, but has it got a valid excuse for this ideology, as the world cries out for dynamic action to get even close to net zero?

I am concerned that COP26 will be a series of ‘cop-outs’ by our government, but I look forward to being proved wrong.

James Parker is editor of Architects Data File