Desperate to get off the hook with subsidising households’ rising energy bills, the Rishi Sunak government has decided to invest £1bn in home insulation. Yesterday (28 November), the government announced a “push” to “help millions reduce their energy bills” through the ECO+ scheme. For years, industry experts have called on the government to invest more in home insulation, both to reduce energy bills and to help achieve net zero targets.
But this latest announcement may only scratch the surface of the UK’s cold homes problem – which are the leakiest and least-insulated in Europe.
The focus on loft and cavity wall insulation is misguided according to the Green councillor Andrew Cooper, who played a key role in establishing a home insulation scheme in Kirklees, Yorkshire. He told Spotlight, “These are like entry-level energy efficiency measures and not many houses will benefit.” Instead, he believes the focus should be on “whole-house retrofitting” and on homes that are more difficult to insulate, such as older ones.
This is because there is a diminishing number of houses in which loft and cavity wall insulation would work well, said Cooper. Both have been the focus of energy efficiency schemes for decades, but with little effect. A £3bn government fund announced in July 2020 to give homeowners up to £10,000 to insulate their homes was deemed a “slam dunk fail” by the Public Accounts Committee, for instance. It closed after a year.
“Government putting more money into helping homes become more energy efficient is a good thing, but the devil is in the detail,” said Matt Copeland, head of policy at the charity National Energy Action. For him that means, “Who is it helping, and how much?”
Some 6.7 million people are currently in fuel poverty, and the industry believes it could deliver three times the government’s proposed investment if it were allocated differently. However, the new funding split is 20 per cent to low-income households through the ECO+ scheme and 80 per cent for a programme for people in council tax bands A-D (generally smaller homes) with a poor energy performance certificate.
Copeland is unsure about the latter because it is a very wide pool of people. The current expectation is that they will have to contribute financially themselves – which would immediately exclude the lower-income households.
“We know a significant number of people are borrowing to pay their energy bills at the moment, there’s millions of households that have negative budgets right now,” Copeland said. Even if there is good take-up of the scheme, the impact on fuel poverty will be limited by a requirement for households to contribute money. This would particularly affect working-class, renters and black, Asian and minority ethnic households – all of whom are less likely to have savings. “We would prefer to see, firstly, fully funded measures, but secondly, tighter targeting on fuel poverty,” he continued.
“This is not new stuff, this is extremely old stuff,” Copeland added. “We need to be looking at how we go about full-house retrofit programmes.” This needs to be underpinned by a national strategy, with investment in whole-house energy efficiency alongside training to give workforce the skills to upgrade the UK’s housing.
The risk is that the Prime Minister’s announcement leads to yet another policy flop when energy efficiency has never been more critical to households, to the public purse, or the climate. Even with the money put into ECO+ being put to good and effective use, the bulk of the fund appears to be focusing on the wrong households with the wrong measures. Furthermore, it is doing so without the long-term strategy needed to help the UK gain ground compared to its European neighbours.
[See also: Meet the manager of a heat pump company who feels like starting a revolution]