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18 March 2022updated 21 Mar 2022 4:14pm

Why can’t the UK manage to insulate its homes?

The UK government has failed since 2013 to offer policies or funding to push up insulation rates, leaving homes leaky and expensive to heat.

By Philippa Nuttall

Insulating your house is not rocket science. Or it shouldn’t be. But in the UK it is apparently easier to send a man or woman into space than to fill the nation’s attics with fibreglass or sheep’s wool. The easiest and quickest way to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, stop energy bills rising and tackle climate change is to stop wasting energy. So why can’t the UK get its act together on insulation?

The UK has the leakiest homes in western Europe, and homeowners who have tried to plug the gaps generally have tales to tell of complications, delays and significant costs. The UK’s building stock is relatively old – 20 per cent of homes were built before 1919 – and highly reliant on gas for heating. At the same time, buildings account for 42 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions. 

Data shows that from 2008 to 2019 the most common insulation measure was full double glazing – by 2020, 86.7 per cent of houses in the UK were thus equipped. Also by 2020, however, only 49 per cent of dwellings had cavity or solid wall insulation, with loft insulation found in just over 39 per cent of housing.

These figures are improvements on the situation back in 2008, but insulation rates have never recovered from the highs of ten years ago. In 2013, the government cut support for insulation, and installation rates fell by around 90 per cent. The rationale was to cut levies of a few pounds from energy bills, but this short-term, election-winning thinking came at the expense of much larger, long-term savings in heating homes. An analysis by Carbon Brief in January found that removing environmental measures had already added £2.5bn to energy bills.

And the decision to cut support for insulation looks particularly disastrous in the current context, with successive policies failing to resurrect installation rates. Recent government action has lacked advance planning, been underfunded and paid too little attention to delivery and results. Individual policies and programmes have been too short term to provide enough confidence and clarity for manufacturers or installers to invest in new capacity or train staff, or for homeowners to understand and take advantage of schemes.

The most recent support programme, the Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme, closed for new applicants after just six months, with only 50,000 homes receiving an upgrade, against a target of 600,000. Previous schemes, such as the Green Deal, were also withdrawn amid delivery failures.

We don’t need to call on the Jeff Bezoses or Elon Musks of this world to keep the insulation dream alive, as has happened in the space industry. The Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group, a collaboration of industry and consumer groups, think tanks and environmental NGOs, has drawn up a clear set of demands to meet the triple challenge of getting off Russian gas and oil, tackling climate change and bringing down sky-high energy bills.

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Its plan includes the government moving forward with the final £2bn promised for three initiatives, namely the Homes Upgrade Grant, Social Housing Decarbonisation Scheme and Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund, and setting out delivery plans for industry and households. Secondly, the Chancellor should set up a nationwide retrofit scheme for other households who need extra financial support, say the experts. Thirdly, government should create “a comprehensive roadmap” showing how and when retrofit schemes will be made available over the next decade, “to enable households to plan and allow manufacturers and the construction industry to invest in skills and capacity”.

Data from Energy Performance Certificates shows that the average rating for homes in the UK is band D, where A uses least the energy and G uses the most. The government wants to improve this average to band C, a move that would cut heating demand by 20 per cent for each home and equate to a 15 per cent cut in gas imports, as estimated by the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). 

It is also worth noting, says the think tank, that insulation is a more cost-effective way to provide long-term help with heating bills than schemes such as the winter fuel allowance or Warm Homes Discount Scheme, which provide only temporary respite. “The winter fuel allowance typically provides £200 a year, which would cover 20 per cent of the average band-D bill for 2021-22, whereas the one-off cost of insulating a home from band D to C would save 20 per cent on every future bill,” says the ECIU.

“The government needs to treat a national energy-efficiency uplift as it would any other major infrastructure project – looking across the UK’s building stock, mapping out a comprehensive plan and paying as much attention to how schemes are delivered as to the effectiveness of the incentives themselves,” says Ólöf Jónsdóttir from insulation firm Rockwool.

But perhaps this is where part of the problem lies. Look to the majority of the government’s statements on the clean energy transition and they are focused on massive offshore wind projects, industrial-scale hydrogen plants, big battery factories or fleets of sleek electric vehicles. In comparison, insulation is fairly boring – domestic, passive and focused on saving, rather than producing something shiny and new. In short, the government has trouble seeing it as a “major infrastructure project” that deserves its full attention, strategic policies and proper funding.

“Politicians and the government have become too interested in short-term gains,” said Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut to go into space. “Of course, if you look at the direct financial returns in the short term, human space flight is expensive. But they need to look longer term.”

The same could be said of humble loft insulation. 

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