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Paul Groves looks at the construction industry’s reaction to the Green Homes Grant

Forget Brexit, forget global pandemics, forget immigration, forget law & order, forget the economy stupid, the most difficult challenge facing politicians is none of these.

The environment remains the issue where most politicians of pretty much any persuasion fear to tread. And when they do, the results are rarely happy or successful.

In recent years we had the “greenest Prime Minister ever” (sic) David Cameron and his Government floundering around with the Green Deal. No matter how many huskies he hugged and seals he selfied with, Mr Cameron and his lofty environmental pledges never really materialised.

And despite being green-shamed by a teenage schoolgirl in more recent years, successive Prime Ministers have fared little better in coming to grips with the environment.

Is it easy being green? Let’s ask the Chancellor that question in six months’ time

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification magazine

Plenty to digest

Step forward Chancellor Rishi Sunak this summer, however, and we suddenly have a whole raft of green-tinted proposals that seemingly promises to deliver more than Mr Cameron could ever have dreamt of achieving.

In recent times, with a lot of Government announcements, the caveat “the devil is in the detail, which seems to be lacking” has been quite a common response. So, is the Green Homes Grant any different?

In truth, we still do not really know the answer. Despite launching in September there is still not much substance to go on, but plenty of opinion to digest.

The original announcement included a £2bn Green Homes Grant, with vouchers of up to £5,000 to help homeowners upgrade their homes and up to £10,000 available to some of the UK’s poorest families.

Alongside this, there was £1bn programme to make public buildings, including schools and hospitals, across the UK greener. A further £50m was announced to pilot innovative approaches to retrofitting social housing at scale.

At the time, Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive, UK Green Building Council, said: “Done well, it has the potential to kickstart a retrofit revolution across the country. Done badly however, it could cause more harm than good to people’s homes and to the industry.

“It is crucial that the Government avoids falling foul of the mistakes made by previous retrofit schemes. This means ensuring that all measures and installers under the scheme are properly accredited and deliver real improvements.”

Five key areas

It had been hoped the Autumn Budget would provide some of that detail. However, with Covid-19’s second wave engulfing the nation we can no longer expect a traditional statement. That leaves us with still more opinion and speculation than hard and fast facts

The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) has launched a research study exploring just how the Chancellor’s proposals from July could be achieved.

“It is absolutely possible to take a typical semi-detached, 50-year old home and turn it into a near zero carbon building: but it’s a bit more complicated than just adding insulation to the loft”, explains Anastasia Mylona, Head of Research at CIBSE.

“The good news is that the right combination of measures will make a dramatic difference and will pay for itself over time in reduced energy costs. But buildings are complicated and sometimes the most effective measures may not be the most obvious.”

Five key areas are identified as contributing to improving energy performance: insulation; ventilation; heating and hot water; lighting; glazing; and low carbon systems, renewable energy and microgeneration.

“Getting the best result is about balancing the costs and benefits of each of those elements and the most effective combination will be different for each building type,” added Anastasia Mylona.

Seal of approval

The Government announced in August that builders, plumbers, and other tradespeople across England will need a government-backed seal of approval to provide their services as part of the new Green Homes Grant. Tradespeople must register for TrustMark or Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accreditation to take part in the scheme.

Is this starting to sound familiar? The drip, drip, drip of information coming from the Government includes many aspects of the original, ill-fated Green Deal. But just as with Green Deal, it is this drip, drip, drip of information that is causing so much consternation and confusion.

It is extremely difficult for businesses and organisations to plan ahead effectively if they do not get the full information up front – if at all, some might even argue. This task is made even harder when we are struggling with a global pandemic.

We’ve already had a Son of Green Deal falter at the starting blocks a while ago, so with each piece of new information we get is the Green Homes Grant actually the Grandson of Green Deal?

Not much time

With the Grant slated to officially start last Wednesday (September 30) and end in March 2021, MCS has already called on the Government to extend the initiative by as much as 18 months to ensure all those seeking to benefit can do so and to cope with the anticipated backlog of work that is likely to happen.

There is a large degree of confidence from MCS contractors following a recent survey, but concerns that too tight a timeframe has been imposed by the Chancellor. Ian Rippin, Chief Executive at MCS, said: “We echo our members’ calls to extend the grant and give the supply chain more time to complete installations for as many homes as possible.

“We feel the Green Homes Grant will go some way to generating consumer interest in small-scale, low-carbon energy products and supporting the businesses that install them – but realistically, six months is not enough time. 

“Our survey has also underlined a number of long-standing concerns held by the industry when it comes to driving the wider adoption of renewables across England. The government should and can go further, putting more weight behind this and other creative measures, such as a VAT cut on renewable products.”

Is it easy being green? It will be interesting to ask Rishi Sunak that question in six months’ time.

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine