Dealing with our national home energy efficiency problem requires bold action, says Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, Alan Whitehead MP.
The woeful energy efficiency of Britain’s housing stock is legendary. According to some measures the UK has among the least energy efficient housing stock in Europe. Homes here are built to low energy efficiency standards, older properties are frequently in poor repair and leaking heat, and we have a massive legacy of some 8.5 million solid wall properties with no cavities and hence not treatable with lower cost insulation techniques.
Because so many homes are hard to heat Britain has a problem of fuel poverty almost unknown in countries where homes are of a much higher basic standard. The worst homes are concentrated in the private rented sector, which means that the least able to pay are paying most for their heating.
Poorly insulated and damp homes add to health problems in the same group of people. And of course as far as Britain’s contribution to climate change action through emissions saving is concerned, we are as a country needlessly burning through vast amounts of fuel just to keep our leaky homes reasonably warm.
In order to deal with these multiple problems, it makes sense to tackle our national home energy efficiency problem head on - to retrofit those homes so that they are no longer repositories of fuel poverty, climate change laggards and additional burdens on our health services.
But how do you actually do this? The government has recognised that we need to make such progress and has put forward as an aspiration that all properties should be band C by 2035. But, critically it offers only half the money to make this aspiration a reality.
So Labour has now committed itself to a plan that really would get us to the target of all homes band C by 2035, the UK’s fourth and fifth carbon budget targets and targets for the elimination of fuel poverty. Any progress made would have to include a proper proportion of work on those hard to treat homes, which may need external cladding, not just the less expensive and easier loft and cavity treatments.
During the course of the next Labour government, we want to ensure that no fewer than four million treatments are carried out. That number is important because a similar commitment for a second term government reaches the targets for the fifth carbon budget and in so doing effectively eliminates fuel poverty as a significant housing issue.
And we want to tackle those four million treatments by schemes of assistance on all fronts: interest free grants for low income home owners as an infrastructure investment, interest free loans for those ‘able to pay’, owner occupied and rented sector properties, and direct payment for works to local authority and housing association properties.
But the particular innovation of this commitment lies in the means of delivery of the investment and grants.
Local authorities up and down the country would be tasked with taking the lead on achieving goals based on indicative targets for their local areas. They would be funded either directly, or indirectly through a grant and loan system to get the work done, able to deliver on a ‘street by street, area by area’ basis, thereby greatly increasing the number of homes able to benefit from energy efficiency measures. Local authorities will be the one stop shop, for all forms of improvement, and will through their local knowledge and planning, be able to target the areas needed to prioritise effectively.
That of course might be seen as a tough challenge for local government under its current restraints, but Labour would want to ensure that the funding is there to do the job properly. It would certainly not be the intention to ‘assume’ local funding for proportions of these targets, and nor would local authorities have to seek ‘partnerships’ with obligated energy companies to get going.
Labour would end the costly business of requiring energy companies to go round identifying recipients, but would not end energy companies’ obligations to assist. We would want to maintain the level of funding from the energy companies tied up in the present ECO, but that instead would be a contribution from them to a local authority managed funding stream for the work.
We consider that to carry out this level of programme, including subsidising grants for low income occupiers, funds for direct work on energy efficiency, public sector properties underwriting, zero interest loans and a capital subsidy for landlords with low income tenants would, altogether (to get to the 2035 band C target) come to an investment, based on national infrastructure funding arrangements, of approximately £32 billion on present prices.
An immediate commitment to treat four million homes, including a substantial hard to treat element over a five year period, and, frontloading support for low income housing would come to £11.5 billion, or £2.7 billion per annum. That figure would of course be offset, in the life of the first Labour government at least by the continued contribution of energy companies at £610 million per annum, or £3.2 billion over the lifetime of a parliament.
Not cheap, but serious economists looking at similar plans have reported that every £1 spent on these programmes represent £3.20 of GDP growth. This investment will return as reduced fuel bills, savings on fuel imports (bringing homes up to band C would reduce gas usage for heating in properties by 25%) increased productivity and savings on future carbon tax, not to mention lower costs and less winter pressure on the NHS through ending fuel poverty.
Labour wants the kind of energy efficiency programme that has repeatedly been called for by so many involved in fuel poverty, home energy efficiency and climate change action, but more than pious aspiration we will commit the funds and methods to make it a reality. Above all we want to see local authority delivery, backed by those funds and methods at the forefront of the campaign. That’s a challenge I’m sure will be risen to and relished by all involved in local government.
For more information about how your council can tackle fuel poverty, please contact Head of APSE Energy Phil Brennan at 0161 772 1810 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.