Author Mark Richards

The UK’s commitments on climate change will have serious implications for all our homes

On December 12th, 2015 representatives of 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, which set ambitious and far-reaching targets on climate change.  As part of this agreement, the UK is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050. Previous Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom stated that tackling climate change and de-carbonising the energy supply was “a duty to future generations,” and her successor, Greg Clark, appears equally adamant. In truth, with even leaders like Chinese Premier Xi Jinping saying that the Paris Agreement cannot be allowed to fail, the UK has no choice.

However, this commitment to reducing carbon emissions has serious implications for the homes we live in – which is where we start to run into serious potential problems…

Virtually all existing homes will need insulating

A report has just been published by the Green Building Council (GBC) which states that 4 out of every 5 homes that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built. The problem is that virtually all of these homes will need insulating to meet the 2050 emissions targets – and no-one appears to have the money to do it.

Local councils – already short of money and facing ever-increasing bills for social care – don’t have the cash.

The UK Government – faced with the uncertainties over Brexit and committed to cutting back on spending – won’t pay the bill. And besides, why should the Government throw public money at a project that will increase the value of private homes?

Homeowners – many of whom fit very neatly into Theresa May’s ‘just about managing’ category – are unlikely to have the upfront cash, despite knowing that insulation makes economic sense in the long term

And landlords – focused on maximising rental yields and possibly facing a further crackdown in Wednesday’s Budget – will not pay unless they are compelled to.

Huge challenge – but also a huge opportunity

The authors of the report point out that while this is a huge challenge, it is also an ‘unmissable opportunity’ given the Government’s new-found commitment to investment in infrastructure. Insulating roofs, walls and floors may not have the glamour or the headline-grabbing potential of HS2 or a tidal lagoon, but is very labour-intensive: it is a project that would create a significant number of jobs.

Julie Hirigoyen, head of the GBC, said there were significant benefits in insulating and upgrading the UK’s housing stock:

“People will have warmer homes and lower bills. They will live longer, happier lives [and] we will be able to address climate change and carbon emissions.”

The Government’s reaction

But far from seizing the opportunity, the Government appears to be shying away from the problem. The Labour Government introduced a rule that anyone extending their property should be obliged to insulate the rest of their home, but the Coalition Government quietly shelved the measure after it had been dubbed the ‘conservatory tax’ in the media. So right now the Government appears to be focused on bringing down fuel bills through ‘energy switching’ – moving from one supplier to another, although on average that only saves £25 a year. As energy expert, Russell Smith says,

“The solution to the problem is refurbishing homes, but it is difficult – so politicians keep putting it on the back burner.”

So with the Government seemingly uninterested, and landlords, homeowners and local councils unwilling or unable to foot the bill, what is the answer? After all, the UK must meet its 2050 obligations. Maybe the answer is to concentrate on the new houses now being built: they may only account for 20% of the housing stock by 2050, but surely we can at least make that they are properly insulated, and go some way to meeting the targets for reduced carbon emissions?

Too many new homes have faults

too many new homes have faults

Sadly, the answer appears to be no – at least according to a recent YouGov survey for the housing charity Shelter. The survey – which polled 4,341 adults online – found that 51% of homeowners of recent new builds in England said they had experienced ‘major problems’ with their new home. These included construction issues, unfinished fittings and faults with utilities. This comes after one of the country’s leading housebuilders – Bovis – agreed to pay £7m compensation to customers for poorly-built homes.

This backs up claims of increasing complaints about poor building standards in new homes, and the general regulation of the sector. Critics say that the National House Building Council (NHBC) – which checks new homes for defects and provides 10-year warranties for most of the UK’s new homes – is “too close” to the building industry and failing in its duty to protect consumers.

With all too many working families renting privately because they cannot afford to buy a new home – the West Midlands is the worst region, with 93% of families unable to purchase an average-priced new home – Shelter has called for local authorities and specific development corporations to have a bigger role. In a report entitled New Civic Housebuilding the charity has called for a return to building good-quality, affordable homes like the model village for Cadbury workers at Bourneville and the garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn.

Prince Charles takes the lead…

Our future king has been quick to embrace this idea, with the Duchy of Cornwall’s ground-breaking housing development at Newquay.

That sounds like a good start – but the Duchy of Cornwall development at Tregunnel Hill in Newquay is only 174 houses. The UK needs to insulate 25 million homes by 2050, or – to put it in rather more stark terms – 1.4 homes every minute.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, the problems – of both meeting the commitment on carbon emissions and providing enough affordable housing – will only be solved by central government. The 2050 deadline is only 33 years away: in terms of a national housing policy, that is not very long at all. It will be interesting to see if the Chancellor alludes to the problem in his Budget speech. The two problems offer huge opportunities – both for creating employment and investing in the economy – but significant investment is required: and it is required quickly. These are not problems which can be ‘kicked into the long grass’ indefinitely.