Blog Post

Post COVID-19 we must build back better

Commentators from the International Energy Agency, to Green NGO’s as well as a number of leading economists, such as Nick Stern, are calling upon Governments to align their climate change policies with investment in a Post COVID-19 economic recovery by ‘building back better’. As with the Green New Deal this can cover a very broad range of policies and politics. The challenge is to make it relevant, practical and politically achievable.

Many of us have long argued the case for a national programme to retrofit the nation’s homes with practical measures to improve their energy efficiency, cut fuel bills and lift households out of fuel poverty. Now fresh work is showing that to get spending back into voters’ pockets from Blyth to Bridport we should invest in just such a programme.

A new paper from the climate change focused ‘insider’ policy group, E3G, is the latest to highlight:

“Retrofitting buildings to high energy efficiency standards can quickly and reliably ‘level up’ employment opportunities creating 150,000 jobs to 2030 and deliver household savings of £7.5 billion per year that translate into consumer spending”.

‘Investing in a resilient net zero UK recovery’. E3G. May 2020

This spending would, as Labour highlighted at the last election, represent a very real commitment to improving the UK’s housing stock. The question is how to do it.

The Scottish, Welsh and to some extent the Northern Ireland Government all have structured, tax payer funded, energy efficiency programmes. Only England does not.

Here the Tory led coalition introduced the failed ‘Green Deal’ (which was largely a pale imitation of the ‘Pay as You Save’ scheme driven forward by Ed Miliband’s team prior to the 2010 election). Labour’s ‘Warm Front’ went and, following pressure  from the ‘Big 6’ incumbent energy suppliers, the Conservative Government also dramatically cut the consumer funded ‘Energy Company Obligation’ which obliges energy companies to do at least something to lift households out of fuel poverty.

Scotland has a multilevel, multi-year, £280m programme that includes:

  • Warmworks – A tax payer funded national programme rolling out insulation and heating to vulnerable households in the owner occupied and private rented sector. This includes rigorous standards enforcement across the 29 local contracting firms who carry out the work.
  • Area based, ring fenced, funding to Scottish local authorities to retrofit public sector housing using predominantly local contractors.
  • Low interest loans for owner occupiers and others to commission their own work.
  • An overarching and enforceable target to achieve zero carbon homes including.
  • A (new) legal obligation on Private Landlords to significantly improve the energy rating of their property before it can be (re)let.
  • Retained Building Standards as a local authority function.
  • A distributed network of advice centres with a national call centre to access all the programmes.

In England we need a similarly structured programme that not only harnesses the local knowledge of Councils, but also focus on high quality work, backed by effective, training and easy access to all aspects of the programme. The existing national programmes of the devolved nations could be boosted directly with dedicated Treasury funding.

The Labour Party is building of its commitment to a major programme of home insulation and inviting party members and others to respond to its newly launched ‘Green Recovery’ consultation. It emphasizes that in response to the pandemic

“We also need action to combat the economic crisis that is facing so many communities across our country while ensuring that we take bold and ambitious steps to tackle the climate crisis” it concludes that “The impact of coronavirus will be felt sharply over the coming months and we need to be ready to present our plans to government”.

Labour Party Green Recovery Consultation, National Policy Forum 2020

The Chancellor is reputably looking for ‘shovel ready projects’. Boosting job creating action on thermally improving the nation’s housing stock is just such a project. In England from commit to action on the ground would take about 6 months – in Scotland, Wales and North Ireland it would be almost immediate given their existing programmes.

This is essentially about a practical programme of housing improvement that puts jobs and investment into constituencies across the UK and takes us all a long way towards the UK’s legal commitment to a zero carbon future. It is the proverbial win-win for the thousands who would work on the programme, the climate, and significantly the voters who would see the benefit through a warmer home and lower energy bills for the longer term.

Let’s do it!

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">David Green </span></strong>
David Green

David currently acts as Chairman for Warmworks Scotland, PRASEG – the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Renewable and Sustainability Energy, and is an advisor to Energy Consumers Australia.

He co-founded leading fuel poverty charity National Energy Action in 1981, is the former Chief Executive of the federal Clean Energy Council in Australia, and former Chair of the Mayor of London’s Energy Partnership. He has previously worked for Friends of the Earth and the Housing Department of Newcastle City Council.

He writes for Red Brick in a personal capacity.

2 replies on “Post COVID-19 we must build back better”

Improving energy efficiency (sources of heat and insulation) is necessary but about half of the existing housing space (and associated fabric) is under-used. The Government should be incentivising schemes that combine the energy refit with the sub-division of existing dwellings so that the space being insulated and heated is being occupied. This process of custom-splitting could involve different generations of the same or different families, two households looking to downsize-in-place, or households languishing on the statutory self-build registers waiting for a serviced plot. Grants/loans for feasibility and design work, if not for the work itself, would enable housing needs (including increasing mobility standards) to be met within carbon budgets.

David Green’s is a very welcome contribution to debate about Labour’s housing policies, and a reminder that environmental concerns must inform and educate and underpin our policy development at all levels. The idea of a ‘practical programme for housing improvement’ could go much further. The standard and condition of much of the housing stock if the country is poor, and getting worse with every passing year, and major investment, way beyond the capacity of many private owners, will be needed to get it up to the wider standards and conditions appropriate for the 21st century, rather than the 19th century from which so much stock dates. If we don’t grasp this nettle we will increasingly condemn people – in general the worst off and most vulnerable – to live in deteriorating housing which no-one can afford to modernise, with all the damaging effects on health and well-being we are familiar with. Just think – most homes improved under the 1969 Housing Act General Improvement Areas policy for a ‘thirty year life’ are now forty or more years older. We need to think in the strategic long term – the country’s housing stock is the most important part of its infrastructure, after all.

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