In August this year, UK households wrote an open letter to COP26 president Alok Sharma to persuade him to push the government to develop a national strategy for decarbonising existing buildings. The open letter was convened by Households Declare, a new campaign which was an offshoot of the Architects Climate Action Network. Households Declare was set up to help households declare a climate emergency, as many local councils and businesses already have, and to bring their voices together to more effectively press policymakers to set ambitious decarbonisation policies. The call to action comes at a time when the government is reportedly arguing amongst themselves over the cost of low carbon heating.
Of all the steps that need to be taken over the next 30 years to get the UK to net zero, weaning the UK’s ageing housing stock off carbon is arguably one of the toughest challenges in terms of infrastructure the UK has ever faced.
Notably, emissions from the UK’s domestic building stock account for around one quarter of the national total. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has time and again cited energy inefficient homes which are dependent on fossil fuel heating, as a key obstacle on the road to net-zero by 2050.
The Future Homes Standard has been initiated to ensure that homes built from 2025 will be net-zero but the UK Green Building Council has estimated that 80% of the buildings which will exist in the UK in 2050 are already standing.
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Local authorities and developers need to find a way to decarbonise 25 million homes by 2050, an astonishing 833,000 per year, at a total cost of between £400bn and £1,000bn. Without well-coordinated and united public sector intervention, legally binding national and local net-zero targets will be missed. Undoubtedly, there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done. In order to have a chance of achieving this a good place to start would be the social housing sector where there is at least the potential for the right blend of will, funding and professional management to get this enormous ball rolling.
Earlier this year the construction industry estimated that renovating the UK’s draughty homes to low-carbon standards would cost the government only £5bn over the next four years. The industry believes that this would create 100,000 jobs, cut people’s energy bills, increase tax revenue and bring tens of billions in economic benefits.
Sector leaders wrote to ministers with a proposal for a new “national retrofit strategy” that they say would boost a green recovery in the UK and put Britain on track to meet its climate targets.
The organisations added:
“Wide-scale domestic retrofit is essential to the net zero agenda and backing a long-term strategy will help position the UK as global market leader in the low carbon economy ahead of the UN climate change conference (COP26) in November.”
The construction industry believes that the “national retrofit strategy” requires a combination of policies, including green mortgages to provide the finance for people to install low-carbon heating, stamp duty rebates on refurbished homes, reduced VAT on home improvement works and loans to landlords to improve their properties.
The Construction Leadership Council said that low-income households will need government grants while those on higher incomes should be given access to low interest loans and council tax rebates, paid for by central government. The construction industry also recommended that Ministers should act quickly to enable companies to start training employees and new recruits to bridge the skills gap.
The Households Declare campaign has flagged the repeated declarations made by the Climate Change Commission (CCC) that the UK will not meet its legally binding emissions targets “without near-complete decarbonisation of the housing stock”. The campaign is calling for the Government to develop a national strategy for retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency. The government attempted to address this with the Green Homes Grant and Public Sector Decarbonisation schemes which were set up to help households and public sector organisations respectively with the bulk of the costs of improvements that reduce energy consumption. Unfortunately, the Green Homes Grant was closed in the spring of this year with less than 10% of the 2bn promised in vouchers issued.
Though Ministers have been urged by trade bodies, NGOs, local councils and activists to clarify plans for replacing the Green Homes Grant in full, this has not yet been confirmed. Households Declare want the strategy details as soon as possible and they are calling on Ministers to “do it now and make it fair”.
They are also campaigning for VAT breaks for products that improve household energy efficiency, as well as the retrofit services themselves.
The next opportunity for the government to outline a replacement for the Green Homes Grant will be through the publication of the Heat and Buildings strategy this Autumn. It looks likely that the proposed £4,000 for households looking to install new low-carbon heating systems, due to be offered through the Clean Homes Grant scheme from April 2022 (replacing the Renewable Heat Incentive), will be increased. There has however, been backlash from MPs over proposals to only offer grants to low-income homes.
In the meantime, there has been more success with local authority driven schemes which have received both government funding and support. However, the housing retrofit challenge, particularly with private tenures is widely recognised. Less than 7% of homes are owned by local authorities and over 80% are in private hands.
Initiatives such as the social housing decarbonisation fund, green homes grant local authority delivery scheme, home upgrade grant and minimum energy efficiency standards offer local authorities the chance to develop local supply chains and jobs to support further expansion and investment to rebuild confidence within the private sector and stimulate the Covid recovery.
In order to build capacity and avoid stop-start problems a planned and sustained policy is required. Recently the government launched the sustainable warmth competition which draws together phase three of the local authority delivery system and the home upgrade grant (for off gas grid homes) and is a step in the right direction. With this new scheme local authorities can apply for funding to help them install energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating in low-income households.
There is a huge task ahead as gas boilers will need to be replaced with heat pumps, district heating systems and possibly hydrogen systems. Homes will need loft, window and wall insulation, an insulation programme which was a big part of the failed Green Homes Grant scheme which was heralded to build a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government is expected to publish its heat and buildings strategy soon. Decarbonising the UK’s homes, which produce nearly one-fifth of the UK’s carbon output, is an urgent issue as the government looks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% before 2035.