Home truths: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Heating Clydebank via the Clyde: renewable heat in the COP26 host city

Image: West Dunbartonshire Council

In less than ten months’ time, the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow, as the city plays host to the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26). Leaders from across the world will come together to discuss enhanced ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take steps to mitigate the effects of climate change. This is a process known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’, which envisions signatories of the Paris Agreement, stepping up their commitments to reduce carbon emissions every five years. This year’s conference in Glasgow is the first time that this mechanism will be in play, and expectations surrounding a significant acceleration of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are high.

With an eye on climate change and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries are already discussing how they can take advantage of the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality. A key element of this transition will be the decarbonisation of the housing stock, and the Climate Change Committee has highlighted the significant role that the implementation of renewable forms of heating will play in reducing the amount of carbon emitted by our homes.

Queens Quay, Clydebank

An example of a project which will take advantage of a variety of modern renewable technologies to create the “greenest town in Scotland” is the Queens Quay development in Clydebank, a site which is only five miles from the Scottish Event Campus where COP26 will take place.

Queens Quay is a £250 million regeneration of the former John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. Designed to take advantage of its waterfront location, the development will feature a variety of mixed-use spaces and a pioneering district heating system. This system will utilise Scotland’s first major and the UK’s largest water-sourced heat pump. The heat pump will extract heat from the River Clyde, and after a process of compression, the heat will be pumped into the development using a buried modular district heating system. It is estimated that this innovative combination of heat pump and district heating technology will cut more than 4,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.

But just how do these technologies work? In this blog, we will take a look at how heat pumps and district heating systems operate, and their application in the Queens Quay development in Clydebank.

Heat pump

In simple terms, a heat pump is a form of renewable heating system that is able to move thermal energy from one location to another. There are a number of different types of heat pump which can extract thermal energy from different locations. At the Queens Quay development, a water-sourced heat pump will be used to extract thermal energy from the River Clyde.

Water-sourced heat pumps use a network of submerged pipes which contain a working fluid that absorbs the heat within the body of water. This working fluid then undergoes a process of conversion that increases the temperature of the heat generated. Once at an appropriate temperature, it can then be used to provide heating and hot water. 

Naturally, as not all developments are located near a body of water, the use of water-sourced heat pump is relatively uncommon. However, water-sourced heat pumps are able to operate more efficiently than ground and air-sourced heat pumps, as heat transfers more efficiently due to the stability of the temperature of water.

District heating

Once heat is produced, it’s vital that it is transferred to buildings in an efficient and reliable manner that prevents heat-loss. A system of district heating is often the most reliable way to utilise energy produced by any form of heat pump, and analysis conducted by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (now the Department for Business, Energy, & Industrial Strategy) found that this combination offers “large CO2 emissions reduction potential”.

A district heating system uses a network of insulated pipes to deliver heat from a centralised energy centre direct to connected buildings. Instead of a boiler, each building will have a heating interface unit which will enable individuals to control the temperature of the heat and hot water they receive without impacting other connected properties.

On top of helping to lower overall fuel costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, district heating systems are also easily expandable and new properties can be added to the network as required. This ensures that district-heating systems are future-proofed and are able to respond to the heat requirements of developments as they evolve over time.

Queens Quay implementation

The implementation of a water-sourced air pump and district heating system in the Queens Quay development provides Clydebank with the opportunity to become the “greenest” town in Scotland, and sets an example of how new developments can be created in a way that supports Scotland’s ambition to become net-zero by 2045.

By linking each property in the development to the network, and establishing a council owned energy company as operator, residents of Queens Quay will benefit from reductions in both the cost of energy and their overall carbon footprint. The success of a renewable heating project at this scale could be a significant development in Scotland’s transition to net-zero, as it may prove that renewable heating systems are an effective means to tackle climate change and fuel poverty.

Additionally, as a key benefit of a district heating system is its modularity, there is scope for existing buildings within Clydebank to be connected to the renewable heating network. West Dunbartonshire Council have set out their desire for the nearby NHS Golden Jubilee National Hospital to be added to the network and are also considering if all future developments should be required to join the district heating system.

Final thoughts

The dual threats posed by climate change and Covid-19 have provided the world with a rare opportunity to undergo a truly revolutionary process of recovery. With expectations high that this year’s COP26 will result in countries accelerating the transition to carbon-neutrality, the development of a pioneering renewable heating system just five miles from the conference may offer us a glimpse of the way homes will be heated in the future.

Decarbonising the housing stock is vital in the battle for carbon neutrality, but concerns have previously been raised about the impact this may have on people in fuel poverty. Ensuring that the transition to renewable forms of energy does not exacerbate existing inequalities will be key to ensuring that everyone benefits from the journey to net-zero.  

As a result, the success of the roll-out of the water-sourced heat pump and district heating system in Queens Quay, and the expected reduction in overall energy costs for residents, may prove to be a major stepping stone in Scotland’s journey to becoming carbon neutral.  


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Figuring it out: five issues emerging from the Scottish draft budget

The week before Christmas might not seem an ideal time to be mulling over the minutiae of economic forecasts and the implications of tax changes. But on Monday morning, the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) review of last week’s Scottish draft budget attracted a big turnout, and helped make sense of the numbers announced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay.

Here are some of the key issues to emerge from yesterday morning’s presentations.

  1. Growth: degrees of pessimism

Last month, the UK Office for Budget Responsibility revised downwards its growth forecast for the UK economy to less than 2%. The FAI, meanwhile, has forecast a slightly lower growth rate for the Scottish economy of between 1% and 1.5%. However, the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) is much more pessimistic, forecasting growth in the Scottish economy of less than 1% up to 2021. If the SFC’s forecast turns out to be accurate, this would mean the longest run of growth below 1% in Scotland for 60 years.

Dr Graeme Roy, director of the FAI, suggested that the SFC’s gloomy outlook is based on the view that the Scottish working-age population is projected to decline over the next decade. In addition, the SFC also believes that the slowdown in productivity, which has been a blight on the Scottish economy since the 2008 financial crisis, will continue.

  1. Income tax rises: reality v perception

Mr Mackay proposed big changes in Scotland’s tax system, with five income tax bands stretching from 19p to 46p. While these measures attracted the biggest headlines for the budget, the FAI believes that most people will see little meaningful impact in their overall tax bill (relative to income). Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, also suggested that the tax changes are unlikely to result in any significant behavioural changes in the way people pay tax in Scotland. And, as has been noted elsewhere, high taxation does not necessarily lead to unsuccessful economies.

However, as the FAI highlighted, perception is important, and if Scotland comes to be seen as the most highly taxed part of the UK, this could have serious implications for business start-ups and inward investment.

  1. Taxation: two systems, multiple implications

Charlotte Barbour also highlighted some of the implications of the tax changes in Scotland that haven’t featured widely in press coverage. How the changes interact with areas such as Gift Aid, pensions, the married couple’s tax allowance, Universal Credit and tax credits will need careful examination in the coming weeks.

  1. Public spending: additional resources, but constrained settlements

The FAI’s David Eiser noted that Mr Mackay was able to meet his government’s commitments to maintain real terms spending on the police and provide £180m for the Attainment Fund. He also announced an additional £400m resource spending on the NHS. But these settlements are constrained in the context of the Scottish Government’s pay policy,

Mr Mackay’s plan offers public sector workers such as nurses, firefighters and teachers earning less than £30,000 pounds a year a 3% pay rise, and those earning more than that a 2% rise. For the NHS alone, this could cost as much as £170m.

In addition, analysis published yesterday by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE) has estimated that, if local authorities were to match the Scottish Government’s pay policy, this would cost around £150m in 2018-19.

  1. The budget’s impact on poverty

If the growth forecasts are correct, even by 2022 real household incomes in Scotland will be below 2007 levels. Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director Scotland to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looked at the Scottish budget in the context of poverty, and suggested that three principles need to be addressed before the budget can be finalised: there are opportunities both to increase participation by minority groups in employment and to improve progression in low-wage sectors, such as hospitality and retail; energy efficiency is one important way of lowering household bills and improving housing quality in the private rented sector; and options such as topping up child tax credits and more generous Council Tax rebates are better at reducing poverty than cutting income tax.

Finalising the budget

As all of the speakers noted, the Scottish draft budget is not a done deal. The minority Scottish National Party government in the Scottish Parliament needs the support of at least one other party to ensure its measures are adopted. The most likely partner is the Scottish Green Party, which has indicated that the budget cannot pass as it stands, but could support the government if an additional £150m is committed to local government.

It took until February this year before the Scottish Government’s 2016 draft budget could be passed. Time will tell whether a budget announced shortly before Christmas 2017 can finally be agreed before Valentine’s Day 2018.

The complete collection of slides presented at the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Scottish budget review are available to download here.


Our blog post on the Fraser of Allander Institute’s review of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2017 Autumn Budget is available here.

Europe’s housing time bomb: a new report highlights the millions affected by housing exclusion

The European Union has not had its troubles to seek in the years following the financial meltdown of 2008. Continuing concerns about the euro, the refugee crisis and Brexit are challenging Europe’s leaders as never before, leading to speculation about the very existence of the EU. But at the end of March, new research highlighted an additional challenge that threatens Europe’s social fabric.

The authors of the report described the current situation concerning housing exclusion and homelessness as “a state of emergency” affecting all European countries. Startling figures uncovered by the research show a continent-wide crisis in the making:

  • In France, the number of homeless people increased by 50% between 2001 and 2012
  • In Germany, 16% of people spend more than 40% of their income on housing
  • In Romania, one in every two people live in overcrowded conditions
  • In the league table of homelessness, the UK now ranks 20th out of 28
  • The number of families in temporary accommodation in London has increased by 50% since 2010
  • In Copenhagen, youth homelessness has increased by 75% since 2009
  • In Warsaw, the number of people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters has risen by 37% since 2013
  • One in 70 people in Athens are now homeless

Vulnerable groups

The report finds that young people across Europe are being hit especially hard by housing exclusion.

“In all EU countries, young people are more vulnerable to prohibitive housing costs, overcrowding and severe housing deprivation than the rest of the population. For poor young people across Europe, the situation is becoming unbearable, with 65% in Germany, 78% in Denmark and 58% in the UK spending more than 40% of their disposable income on housing. The average in the EU is 48%.”

The report also found that Europe’s poor are being side-lined at a time when housing expenditure has increased while incomes have fallen.

“In general, people living below the poverty threshold are increasingly marginalised by a private rental market that feeds off a systemic lack of affordable housing.”

Non-EU citizens are another vulnerable group experiencing housing difficulties:

“Two-thirds of non-EU citizens are overburdened by housing costs in Greece, almost half in Spain and Belgium, more than one third in Ireland and Portugal, and more than one quarter in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Slovenia.”

Unfit conditions

While homelessness and the rising cost of housing are proving to be growing problems across the EU, poor housing is are also a Europe-wide issue.  Across all European countries, a poor household is two to twelve times more likely to live in severe housing deprivation (leaking roof, dampness, poor sanitation) than other households, and in the European Union as a whole, one person in six lives in overcrowded housing.

Fuel poverty is another significant problem, affecting almost a quarter of poor households across the continent. In the UK, 9.4% of the population and 20.2% of poor households experience financial difficulty in maintaining adequate household temperatures.

Eviction: “a collective abandonment of other people”     

An entire chapter of the report is dedicated to eviction, which the authors describe as “…one of the worst forms of violence that can afflict someone.

The figures from national governments and Eurostat highlight significant variations in the pattern of evictions in each EU country, with surges in the number of evictions in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia and the Netherlands, while six countries – the Czech Republic, Denmark, Croatia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden saw substantial reductions in the number of evictions.

The figures also show varying trends within the UK and differences between the private and public sectors. In England and Wales, rental disputes rose in the social housing sector, but fell in private housing; in Northern Ireland, property foreclosures rose slightly, while tenant evictions rose dramatically by 75%; in Scotland, eviction procedures of all kinds fell by 17%.

Addressing the issue

The report argues that the tools for dealing with the challenges of housing exclusion in Europe already exist, including Europe-wide networks of local, regional and national governments, and EU initiatives, such as the Urban Agenda and the European Pillar of Social Rights. The authors note that there are many examples of good housing practice, notably in Finland, whose “housing first” strategy has achieved a reduction in homelessness – the only EU country to do so.

However, the authors contend that Europe’s leaders need to rapidly activate the political will to tackle the problem of housing exclusion:

“The EU and Member States should place the elimination of homelessness in the core of their social policy agendas. Responses to homelessness should be mainstreamed into the design and implementation of relevant sectoral policies including youth, gender, migration, and Roma inclusion. The EU and the Member States can and should act to enforce social rights.

Final thoughts

The report’s figures make sobering reading: more than 36 million households living in overcrowded conditions; almost 11 million households facing severe deprivation; more than 22 million households experiencing fuel poverty. Perhaps most worrying is the number of homeless people in Europe. This is an unknowable figure, but all the indications are that it is rising dramatically.

Published a week before the UK signalled its intention to leave the EU, the report received comparatively little media coverage. But if the problem of housing exclusion and homelessness continues to grow, it threatens to overwhelm political leaders at EU, national and local levels. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that homelessness could rival Brexit in its impact on the future of Europe.


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Eating or heating: tackling fuel poverty in the UK

nastural gas flame

It is a complete scandal that people die because they can’t afford to heat their homes. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows the tragic circumstances and daily dilemma of ‘heating or eating’ faced by many thousands of people in Britain today.”

Those were the words of I, Daniel Blake lead actor Dave Johns as he backed a report published in November 2016 by the charity National Energy Action. The report, which looked at the health problems related to fuel poverty, claimed that a child born today may never see fuel poverty eradicated from the UK unless more assistance is given struggling families.

Identifying the “fuel poor”

In England, according to the most recent official government statistics, more than 2.3 million (10%) households are living in fuel poverty. Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Cornwall are among the places worst affected. At risk groups include single parent households with dependent children, rural households, and those living in the private rented sector. Research also highlights that those customers who use prepay meters, which include a large proportion of the most vulnerable customers, are more likely to be “fuel poor” as they do not have the flexible tariff options and reduced rate deals which are offered to customers who pay via direct debit.

The picture is not much better elsewhere in the UK. A report produced by the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group estimated that there are currently over 800,000 households (35%) living in fuel poverty, with levels as high as 50% in rural areas. Meanwhile, in Wales the latest estimates suggest that 23% of households are currently living in fuel poverty.

heater gauge

Tackling the causes of fuel poverty

Not being able to afford to heat your home, or having to choose between eating or heating is the stark choice many families in the UK are being forced to make, however it is clear that fuel poverty stems from a number of different factors, including the cost of fuel, the price of energy, and rising energy consumption habits.

The latest Scottish Government strategy on tackling fuel poverty suggests that four drivers of fuel poverty need to be tackled before fuel poverty can be eradicated. These are:

  • Raising incomes  8 out of 10 households (in Scotland) in income poverty are also fuel poor.
  • Making energy costs affordable  in many cases the cost of fuel is rising faster than household incomes.
  • Improving energy performance in housing  people living in a home with low energy performance are 3.5 times as likely to be suffering from fuel poverty as those in a home with high energy performance.
  • Changing habits of energy use  adopting energy-saving behaviours can make a significant difference to fuel bills by reducing overall demand. There is also a need to better understand and increase use of “green energy”.

But what about energy suppliers?

In December 2016, a report from Turn2Us suggested  that two million households suffer from fuel poverty. Subsequently, the “big six” energy suppliers met at Westminster to discuss what they could do to help tackle fuel poverty. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for energy companies to take action to reduce fuel poverty. However, they are coming under increasing pressure to help tackle fuel poverty, by reflecting some of their profit margins in the rates they give to customers. The idea of automatically putting vulnerable or “at risk” customers onto the lowest fuel tariff was discussed. However the bulk of the discussion, according to reports, concentrated on how to increase awareness of existing options, including the government-led Warm Home Discount, individual support grants, the Cold Weather Payment, and practical support from suppliers themselves.warm fire

Practical strategies to tackle fuel poverty

A number of schemes have been developed to try to help tackle fuel poverty, with national roll outs being supplemented by more localised programmes often funded by local authorities or charities.

In November 2016 the Scottish Government pledged an extra £10m to be spent on tackling fuel poverty. £9m was allocated for councils and housing associations to make it easier for tenants to heat their homes. A further £1m is to be made available to provide interest free loans to help people make their homes more energy efficient.

Other schemes have also been introduced by local authorities to try and tackle fuel poverty, including Ready to Switch? Launched in November 2012, Peterborough City Council’s collective switching scheme uses the combined buying power of residents and businesses within the community to negotiate cheaper prices with energy companies. According to figures from Peterborough Council, to date, hundreds of households have switched to save on gas and electricity, with some reducing annual bills by nearly £150.

Boilers on prescription (BoP) is a new funding stream which is being tested in a number of local authority areas, including Sunderland. The fund is managed through NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and householders at risk of cold related illnesses are referred for heating upgrades via health professionals. One of the main ideas behind BoP is to reduce a resident’s need for NHS interventions by improving their thermal comfort at home. It is hoped that a warmer, healthier home could reduce the number of GP appointments or emergency admissions.

Energie

 

Altering the design of new homes and subsidising the retrofitting of older ones is also a key policy strategy for tackling fuel poverty. Providing homes which are designed or adapted to be energy efficient through improved insulation, the installation of solar panels or using appropriate lighting or heating systems will allow the government not only to reduce fuel poverty in the present, but should also reduce the likelihood of more people falling into fuel poverty in the future. Reducing the demand for energy by creating homes which use less of it may also help to drive down the cost of energy, resulting in even bigger savings. However, it is not just the responsibility of individual homeowners to carry out these improvements. Local authorities, housing associations and private landlords also need to (and have in many instances) recognise the vital role they play, particularly in relation to more vulnerable customers who are at increased risk of falling into fuel poverty. Retrofitting has been increasingly popular in other parts of Europe, as these case study examples show.

The issue of fuel poverty in the UK does not appear to be going anywhere fast. Despite the attempts of governments across the UK to reduce the figure, in many areas the number of people falling into fuel poverty continues to rise. While there are individual areas of good practice aiming to help some of the UK’s most vulnerable families to heat their homes, it is clear that a wider commitment to combat the underlying causes of fuel poverty is needed, along with a recognition that there is a responsibility across the board to provide help and information to families suffering as a result of fuel poverty.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our blog on the Dutch Energiesprong model and our research briefing on retrofitting (member access only).

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Energiesprong: how a Dutch solution could improve Britain’s energy inefficient housing

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. A 2015 study by the Association for the Conservation of Energy found that the UK has among the highest rates of fuel poverty and one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe. In terms of energy efficiency, the UK housing’s walls came 7th out of the 11 countries analysed, while its roofs were ranked 8th, its floors 10th and its windows 11th.

Badly heated housing has significant impacts on health. In 2011, an analysis by Friends of the Earth highlighted the links between cold housing and poor mental and physical health:

“The main health conditions associated with cold housing are circulatory diseases, respiratory problems and mental ill-health. Other conditions influenced or exacerbated by cold housing include the common flu and cold, as well as arthritis and rheumatisms.”

However, people living in energy inefficient homes are often those least able to afford the necessary retrofits, such as insulation, new boilers and double glazing.

The rise and fall of the Green Deal

In 2013, the coalition government launched the Green Deal, a retrofitting programme that aimed to provide an affordable solution for low-income households struggling to keep their homes warm. However, it soon became clear that the Green Deal was too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer, and too hard for householders to understand. After three years of disappointing take-up, the scheme was scrapped in 2015.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, agencies supporting fuel-poor households have been trying to fill the gap. The Trussell Trust, for example, has been opening “fuel banks” in towns and cities across the UK, providing vouchers for paying gas and electricity bills.  Important as they are, these initiatives cannot take the place of housing improvements.

An energy leap forward

The demise of the Green Deal left a gap in the UK’s retrofitting market. However, a recent initiative that shares some of the features of the Green Deal has shown early promise as a possible substitute.

The Energiesprong (“energy leap”) model has its origins in the Netherlands. Energiesprong is a network of organisations committed to urban and regional development. It brokered a deal between housing associations and builders to refurbish houses to net zero energy levels. This means the homes do not consume more energy for heating, hot water and electricity than they produce. Householders commit themselves not to use any more energy than an agreed amount. If they do, additional charges apply, but these are likely to be minimal thanks to the improvements in insulation.

So far, the Dutch scheme has proved successful; the first 800 retrofitted homes have performed better than expected, producing more energy than they consume. The tenants are very satisfied with the improvements and Dutch housing associations have committed to upgrade 111,000 homes under a wider roll-out.

Energiesprong in Britain

The Energiesprong concept is now being applied in the UK, where property developers are working with local authorities and social housing providers on prototypes.

Housing associations will finance the up-front costs of the work, including external wall insulation, roofing and renewables. These will be repaid by the energy cost savings resulting from the upgrade. Unlike the Green Deal, however, the Energiesprong concept is more straightforward and easier for consumers to understand, and refurbishments can be carried out within 10 days. In the UK, between 10 and 30 homes have been undergoing improvements in pilot projects during 2016, with a target of 5000 retrofitted homes by 2018.

The concept also has something to offer owner-occupiers; in addition to improving a property’s energy efficiency, Energiesprong also delivers a better-looking exterior. As Energiesprong UK director Arno Schmickler explained to Architects’ Journal:

“We are trying to position a high-quality, desirable product, to make your neighbours jealous – that really works.”

An off-the shelf retrofit?

The Energiesprong process in the UK must overcome significant challenges before it can achieve the levels of success seen in the Netherlands. Although it has secured European Commission funding, Energiesprong UK could achieve a much greater impact with government support. In addition, changes to planning guidance will be required to enable retrofitting without the need for explicit planning permission. The UK retrofitting sector must also make technical and cultural adaptations if it is to emulate the impact of their Dutch counterparts.

But if Energiesprong takes off in the UK, Arno Schmickler foresees the day when retrofitting could become as straightforward as choosing a new sofa:

“We want to position this where you could walk into, dare I say it, Ikea, and buy your Energiesprong solution while you’re kitting out your home with new furniture. ‘That’s how easy it should become.”



Read our other blog posts on energy efficiency in homes:

Goodbye Green Deal: the government’s decision to axe its energy efficiency scheme leaves a gap that will be hard to fill

By James Carson

The Green Deal is dead. Last month, the energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that no further applications for finance from the project would be accepted.

The Green Deal was launched by the coalition government in 2013 with the aim of improving energy efficiency in homes across England, Scotland and Wales. Under the programme, households could borrow up to £10,000 for household improvements such as double glazing or home insulation, and make repayments through their energy bills.

As well as addressing fuel poverty, the energy efficiency scheme was also regarded as having a crucial role in meeting the UK’s emission reduction targets.

But, almost from day one, the programme was criticised as too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer and too hard for householders to understand. The first round of Green Deal funding attracted fewer than 2000 applications.

Although take-up improved in subsequent years, the scheme was still poorly regarded, not helped by reports of botched installations. Last year the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee concluded that the Green Deal had failed to live up to expectations, arguing that its planning was flawed, its funding inefficiently delivered, and its implementation poor, all made worse by inadequate communication.

What’s the alternative?

But although few will mourn its passing, the sudden death of the Green Deal, with no replacement, has generated angry responses.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said:

“While the Green Deal was by no means perfect, the principle of enabling households to install energy-saving measures without paying upfront costs was sound.”

Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr commented:

“Ditching measures to improve energy-wasting homes will simply leave people to pay more for their bills, with low-income families bearing the brunt of it.”

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. In 2012, 357,000 homes in England had the worst energy ratings of F and G, and more than four in 10 of those were classed as “fuel poor”.

Badly insulated housing has significant impacts on health. Earlier this year, an analysis by Friends of the Earth suggested that cold homes lead to many more people in England than Sweden ending up in hospital with breathing problems, despite England’s much milder weather.

Announcing the Green Deal’s demise, Amber Rudd promised to work with the building industry and consumer groups to create a new system. The government has also commissioned an independent review to look at standards, consumer protection and the enforcement of energy efficiency schemes, to ensure that any future arrangements provide better value-for-money for taxpayers and consumers.

At the moment, another government energy efficiency scheme – the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) remains in operation. Under the ECO the big six energy suppliers are required to help vulnerable householders save on their energy bills and carbon emissions. However this scheme is due to be wound up in 2017.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, the energy efficiency sector has been suggesting alternatives, including:

  • stamp duty and council tax rebates for homebuyers installing energy efficiency measures
  • setting aside some of the government’s projected £100bn infrastructure spending for insulating homes
  • A new ‘pay as you save’ scheme similar to the Green Deal, but one which offers more measures and is easier to administer.

In the meantime, industry, householders and environmental campaigners must wait for the government’s next move on energy efficiency.


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We’ve made some of our member briefings freely available. View a selection of our environment publications on our website.

PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Fighting the cold: working to reduce excess winter deaths

Image from Flickr user FranTaylor under Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user FranTaylor under Creative Commons License

We may have all breathed a sigh of relief when last week’s cold snap finally eased, but for those working in public health the consequences of the cold weather are still playing out.

Cold weather poses a significant risk to health. There is a notable rise in deaths, and also illnesses and injuries, during the winter period. Indeed, in England and Wales there were 11.6% (18,200) more deaths in 2013/14 during the winter period (December to March) compared with the non-winter period (known as “excess winter deaths”).

Older people, particularly those aged over 75 years old, are most vulnerable to cold weather-related illness. The majority of excess winter deaths occur within this age group and those living on their own or who are socially isolated are most at risk. Other groups at risk include those experiencing chronic or severe illnesses, particularly heart conditions or circulatory disease, children under the age of five, and homeless people /street sleepers.

The reasons why cold weather has such a negative impact on health are complex and interlinked with fuel poverty, poor housing and health inequalities. There can be an increase in circulating infectious diseases, particularly flu and norovirus, and snow and ice can cause falls. Cold weather has also been linked to increased cases of hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning (from faulty heating appliances), and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

However, there is evidence to suggest that many of these ill effects are preventable. In some northern European countries, such as Finland, the rate of winter deaths is far lower than that in England, despite experiencing much lower temperatures.

To help address this, the Government has published an annual ‘Cold Weather Plan’ (CWP) since 2011 aimed at local authorities, health and social care staff and any professionals working with vulnerable people. The plan operates a system of cold weather alerts, comprising five levels (Levels 0-4), from year-round planning for cold weather, through winter and severe cold weather action, to a major national emergency. Each alert level aims to trigger a series of appropriate actions, which are detailed in the plan. The latest CWP was published in October 2014.

It stresses the importance of year round planning and all-winter action for reducing excess winter deaths and relieving the additional pressures on the NHS and social care which occur during the winter months. Recommended all-year actions include:

  • addressing fuel poverty
  • improving housing and energy efficiency measures
  • raising awareness of preventative actions among staff.

All-winter actions (November to March) include:

  • communicating with the public about what they can do to reduce the risk of cold weather to their health
  • identifying vulnerable clients
  • supporting vulnerable clients to seek appropriate help.

There are also key public health messages which should be communicated with residents/patients, relating to flu vaccinations, keeping homes adequately heated and ventilated, available financial support, and looking after vulnerable older neighbours and relatives.

A guide to communicating effectively with the public during periods of extreme weather was published recently by the Local Government Association (LGA). The LGA have also provided guidance for local authorities on how they can help to reduce the negative effect of cold weather on health. It highlights examples of innovative schemes, including the installation of free temperature sensors and a volunteer ‘winter squad’ to care for vulnerable residents.

Investing in cold weather planning is important – although the media focuses on travel disruption during cold weather, for many of the most vulnerable in our society it can be a death sentence.


Further reading

The Information Service has a number of resources on cold weather planning – a selection are listed below.

Cold weather plan for England 2014: making the case – why long-term strategic planning for cold weather is essential to health and wellbeing

A turn for the better (Liverpool’s Healthy Homes Programme), IN Property Journal, Jul/Aug 2014, pp42-44 (Ref No. A51407)

Staying in touch (social media), IN Local Government News, Vol 36 No 2 Mar/Apr 2014, pp44-45 (Ref No. A49753)

Behind cold doors: the chilling reality for children in poverty

Reducing harm from cold weather: local government’s new public health role

N.B. Abstracts and access to journal articles are only available to members.