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Heating rural homes and achieving net zero

At a roundtable event, policymakers and experts discussed the challenges faced by rural households as they move towards low-carbon heating solutions.

Home heating has been in the media spotlight lately. As part of the UK’s push towards net zero, the government is planning to ban all new oil and gas boilers by 2035. After this point, households looking to replace their boilers will need to install low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps.

Following a recent policy U-turn, the 2035 date now applies across the board. It had originally been set as 2026 for homes off the gas grid, which often run on oil and have higher than average emissions as a result.

This U-turn is controversial: while it can be framed as a further obstacle in the path towards net zero, it does acknowledge the challenges faced by the UK’s 4.4 million off-grid households. The 2026 deadline would disproportionately have affected rural areas, in which around 75 per cent of properties are off-grid and many contend with fuel poverty.

Recently, the New Statesman held a roundtable event called “Fair and affordable: How can we decarbonise rural homes?”, sponsored by the energy company Calor. It was held under the Chatham House rule, whereby remarks are not attributed to individuals, to encourage more open discussion. Policymakers and experts came together to discuss how rural homes could switch to cleaner heating sources without shouldering an unfair cost burden. As one participant put it: “How do we make that transition fair, how do we make it affordable, how do we make it accessible?”

The panel agreed that rural communities face highly specific challenges when it comes to decarbonising their heating. Some of the solutions being considered for the UK at large won’t work as well in rural areas – for instance, a significant minority of off-grid homes won’t be suited to heat pumps. “You’ve got to plan ‘horses for courses’ solutions for rural communities in a way that the government is simply not doing at the moment,” argued one MP.

An industry spokesperson pointed out that, if heat pumps cost roughly £14,000 to install, and homes are being offered a £7,500 grant to install them from 23 October, this isn’t the right time to introduce a ban. “You need to be pulling people towards heat pumps and other low-carbon solutions rather than chopping them off from what they know and can afford,” they said. “We absolutely do need a ban, but we first need to have those other pieces of the jigsaw in place.”

[See also: Do heat pumps work when it’s cold?]

Another problem, agreed the group, was the lack of public awareness around these issues, due in part to poor communication by the government. “At the moment, very few people are even aware this is coming down the track towards them,” said an MP. One policy adviser took a dim view on how heat pump installations had been managed so far, with the information gap compounded by a lack of skilled mechanics and installers.

Asked how a Labour government would manage the situation, one MP discussed the possibility of moving towards a leasing economy. “Government policy can be used to help the leasers lease the pumps at a lower rate, rather than providing grants for each household to purchase something they probably can’t afford anyway,” they said. Another parliamentarian said that while leasing was an “interesting idea”, there might be some resistance in rural communities, where people “are more likely to want to own something than the bulk of the population”.

The group discussed how the transition might be managed without too much disruption to people’s lives and making sure solutions are future proof. “We need to make sure that people who are installing a heat pump have one that will switch to cooling,” said a think-tank member, who also touted solar panels on roofs as a possible part of the solution.

Regarding homes that are unsuitable for heat pumps, the panel discussed the possibility of moving towards different fuel sources such as hydrogen. An industry spokesperson mentioned renewable liquid gases made from waste materials, adding: “We need a policy steer from government that there will be a chunk of homes or businesses where this type of solution will be an option.”

A big challenge here, noted the participants, is that other sectors such as transport are similarly hungry for low-carbon fuel and are “probably going to hoover up a lot of it”. One policy adviser lamented the lack of a government-wide strategy, with different departments working in siloes. “We don’t have a cohesive plan for how we use and prioritise low-carbon fuels,” they said. An MP agreed that we absolutely need integrated policy over the next few years, “if it’s to roll out in any coherent way”.

The participants closed the roundtable by acknowledging the issue’s complexities. The tenor of the discussion was not wholly negative: one parliamentarian expounded the benefit of pilot schemes in rural areas, while another noted that “it’s not all or nothing, and I think we can make huge strides”.

However, one MP remarked that a Labour government would be “inheriting a very, very difficult situation”. They added that “a part of this is about the nation’s need to get to net zero, but it’s also about supporting individuals to be able to afford to live in rural communities, and those are two very different questions.”

[See also: Labour should go big and get on with green investment]

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