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Alan Whitehead MP: We need a programme of home improvement to make UK housing stock energy efficient

Alan Whitehead MP: We need a programme of home improvement to make UK housing stock energy efficient
3 min read

Government money spent on retrofitting homes to meet climate targets would be a sound investment – improving decarbonisation and reducing fuel poverty, writes Alan Whitehead MP

Over a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK arise from heating in various forms, and over half of that from space heating (mostly our homes), and from cooking and hot water. Just by living in our homes, we’re producing more emissions than any sector other than transport. And fuel-poor households, proportionately, are even worse transgressors – not that it is their fault. 

These fuel-poor families – of which there are currently about 2.5 million or 10% of all households – tend to live in leakier, inadequately insulated homes, and hence pay well above average fuel bills. They may also be on more expensive pay-as-you-go meters. 

The decarbonisation imperative we’re now under with the climate emergency, and the adoption of net zero emissions by Parliament, means that the decarbonisation of power, heat and transport are absolute priorities because of the proportion of emissions the sectors represent. Yet the net result of some of the means to decarbonise rapidly places those in fuel poverty in an even worse position. 

Levies on electricity costs to pay for renewable power increase bills for all, but for fuel-poor households they rise proportionately to an even greater extent.

We need to go about decarbonising our homes by reducing our emissions and fighting fuel poverty at the same time, and we have the means to hand. We should design fuel poverty out by the efficiency with which our homes are heated. 

This is not new. The Government has been edging down this path in recent years by focusing the energy companies obligation on fuel-poor households, but the schemes are too modest to make a real dent in home energy efficiency, and not very effective in targeting the fuel-poor nor reducing their bills. 

Yet a successful treatment of a fuel-poor home can have dramatic effects. The average annual heating bill of a low-income household currently comes to £615. The same low-income household living in an energy-efficient home, or a home that has been made energy efficient by insulation and other measures, would have an annual average heating bill of just £207.

This huge reduction in bills is greater than the present officially estimated poverty gap – that is the reduction in fuel bills that the average fuel-poor household needs in order not to be classified as fuel poor. This figure in 2019 stood at £321. Therefore, the universal availability of fuel-efficient homes would remove most people from fuel poverty. 

If we want to decarbonise our homes and fight fuel poverty there’s no alternative, in my view, to introducing a national programme of treating all homes over the next 20 years, starting with those we know are the worst for efficiency. 

The Government already aims for a decent target of the average home being rated EPC band C by 2035, but are way off target because they’re not willing to make the investment.

If carried out on a mass basis, this could be achieved with an investment of £2bn a year. It sounds quite steep, but for comparison, it comes to less than half of the subsidy per annum that we pay to railway companies currently. 

The results would be spectacular for both decarbonisation and fuel poverty. A saving of 96m tonnes of CO2 per annum, equivalent to the entire saving per annum of banning new petrol and diesel vehicles from our roads by 2030; reducing gas use in homes by perhaps 25% or more, and ending fuel poverty in households even if income levels themselves did not change much in the meantime. Now that’s a return on investment.

Dr Alan Whitehead is Labour MP for Southampton Test and shadow energy and climate change minister


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