We need home insulation, not more roads

Phil Murphy, ex-firefighter and member of SCIN, speaks at the demo
FPA
Home insulation appears to have dropped off the government’s to-do list, but it is essential to protecting people from cold, home power cuts, and hunger.

People in crisis should be supported in this way; adequate heating and power is a right.

The UK Government seems to have shelved the £9.2 billion investment in energy efficiency that it promised in the Conservative manifesto and the Queen’s speech.

Perhaps investment in retrofitting homes so that they are fit for the twenty first century is yet another casualty of the coronavirus. But the fact that the budget still promised an unprecedented £27 billion investment in English roads speaks volumes about government priorities.

Covid-19 has highlighted the extent of people’s vulnerability to fuel poverty in the UK. As lockdown and job losses kicked in, many people who were previously managing were suddenly pushed to choose between heating and eating.

Health

The health implications are alarming. Cold homes go hand in hand with the damp conditions associated with a 30-50 percent increase in respiratory problems, which of course increases vulnerability to coronavirus.

Pandemics aside, close to 10,000 people die from cold homes every winter in the UK. Fuel poverty, like the isolation of lockdown, notably exacerbates mental health difficulties.

A massive programme of retrofitting homes should be a national priority now, including insulation, double or triple glazing, better heating, and even simple draft-proofing. As well as protecting people from fuel poverty, this is crucial to reducing carbon emissions, and could create badly needed jobs into the bargain.

Better insulation is needed to help tackle the ongoing fallout of the coronavirus, especially later this year when the weather gets cold again and job losses leave so many struggling to pay the bills. Future outbreaks and other crises would cause less suffering for people in better insulated homes. 

Ambition 

The decision to prioritise roads over health is the exact opposite of what many people are now expecting. The virus has shone an unforgiving spotlight on UK housing, care provision and incomes, and has shown that they cannot be relied on to sustain life.

In fact, for many people this has been true for decades. Intolerable housing conditions and homelessness are not new, just more visible on television. Well before this coronavirus over a million UK families with children were suffering hunger.

Instead of returning to a “normal” that shortens or degrades the lives of huge swathes of the population, many people are saying we should Build Back Better and prepare both for epidemics and for the ravages of climate change.

The government can either pour resources into fossil fuel industries, roads, airlines, and tax-avoiding multinational corporations, or it can prioritise what will both save our lives, and improve them, like insulation.

Warmth 

As Ellen Lebethe of Lambeth Pensioners Action Group comments: “Insulation makes a huge difference to people’s ability to keep warm and well.” 

She notes: “Living in a drafty Victorian building, I have had to invest in double glazing and back up heaters to keep warm. A lot of people just can’t afford these things.” 

Residents dependent on housing associations and management companies for home insulation can end up footing the bill for extra heating, or just going without. In the new-build Pembroke Park in Hillingdon, managed by A2 Dominion, insulation was promised but never delivered.

Suzy Killip, Chair of Pembroke Park Residents’ Association, states: “A combination of only about 50 percent of the legally required insulation in houses and blocks of flats, combined with a District Heating system unfit for purpose has rendered many of our Housing Association tenants, shared owners and leaseholders with homes that are very costly to heat.

"They are too cold in winter and too hot in summer to be comfortable to live in and after 10 years of trying to get the correct insulation put into these properties, this still has not been addressed and the builder Taylor Wimpey not brought to account.”

Decarbonising

Insulation is equally central to tackling the threat of catastrophic climate breakdown. As Emily Folk discusses, American research published in 2017 highlighted residential energy efficiency as the single intervention capable of saving the most carbon dioxide emissions.

Closer to home, last year’s report on UK housing by the Committee on Climate Change, states in no uncertain terms: Decarbonising and adapting the UK’s housing stock is critical for meeting legally-binding emissions targets by 2050 and preparing for the impacts of climate change. 

UK housing is currently ‘not fit for the future’.  The Committee highlights retrofitting of insulation as an infrastructure priority. It also makes clear that government policy has been failing to treat it as such. Installation of insulation in UK homes has dwindled dramatically in the past eight years. 

For the UK to secure people against fuel poverty, and to play its part in averting catastrophic climate breakdown, this negligence has to end. It is a terrible time for the government to be quietly dropping promised investment on retrofitting.

We also need high quality insulation for new homes. In both cases, insulation must be safe, non-toxic and non-flammable; post Grenfell. It is horribly clear that this does not go without saying: standards are low, have limited application, and are not enforced.

Standards

Insulation must also be fitted appropriately to the building and weather conditions, and under full independent supervision and guarantee; nightmare retrofits like those perpetrated on members of CIVALLI can leave homes much colder and damper than before.

The Future Homes Standard is an opportunity for high energy efficiency standards to be required of new housing. These new requirements, due to be introduced in 2025, are supposed to help the UK meet its binding Net Zero 2050 target.

The government has just consulted on updates to building regulations which are supposed to be a step towards the new standards. But the updates proposed are less ambitious than the policies that some local authorities have already put in place. And the Government is even considering preventing local government imposing their own higher standards!

In March, people suddenly found themselves at home all the time, having to pay for more heating and electricity to keep well, to keep working, to keep children well and learning. Some pensions and benefits were quickly stretched to breaking point and beyond, while a great many people lost their incomes.

Some self-employed people slipped through safety nets while the furlough scheme kicked in too slowly to enable people to stay on top of bills.

Crisis

The government made an agreement with energy suppliers in March to suspend disconnections and help customers in particular need. However, the agreement was full of loopholes (see our petition on thisand support has largely been taking the form of deferrals of payments, not reductions, leaving people in crisis to store up debt for the future or go without. 

You get a sense of the level of crisis reading the comments on this online petition for a government energy relief fund: multiple comments from people who have lost their income and cannot pay their latest energy bills, a mother saying she is already hungry and that her children will be soon.

This particular petition was started by David Pike, CEO of social enterprise supplier People’s Energy. Hearing from the company’s own customers, and observing the general state of the industry, he was convinced that people’s needs would not be met without a government relief fund.

People in crisis should be supported in this way; adequate heating and power is a right. But companies as well as desperate customers would benefit from such a fund, and they should not be allowed to do so without making changes.

We cannot forget that some of these firms have been responsible for many deaths from fuel poverty, a failure to prioritize energy efficient homes, forceful imposition of unwanted prepayment meters, and promoting fossil fuels over renewable sources of energy. 

Invest

Business as usual is unacceptable. Strings should be attached to a company benefitting, via its customers, from a government relief fund. A commitment to ambitious insulation programmes should be among the conditions attached to such a fund. 

The coronavirus has intensified a fuel poverty crisis which was already endemic in the UK, costing thousands of lives year in, year out.

Insulation is part of the solution to this often hidden horror, and it is an indispensable part of tackling climate breakdown. Far from shelving promised programmes, government should be investing in insulation right now, and industry should be required to do the same. 

These Authors

Frances Sleap and Ruth London are campaigners at Fuel Poverty Action, @FuelPovAction; Frances is a teacher and mother, Ruth is a pensioner and author of Climate Justice at Home: Pressing Questions.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here