On warm homes and warm words

(First published in Business Green 16th June 2015)

There is a ballot for Prime ministers questions among backbenchers, and if you are lucky, you will be allocated a slot for one the first ten or so questions that will be called after the opposition leader has had his or her turn. I came up with a slot this week, and decided to raise the issue of support for home energy efficiency programmes. There have been some press reports recently suggesting that these programmes could be chopped as part of the next phase of Government spending retrenchment: so I asked the PM if he could assure me that the reports were not true, and that he would be continuing instead to support energy efficiency underwriting. Present programmes such as Green Deal, ECO and Warm Homes discount are , in truth, not very well funded, but are in my view essential to continue over the next period for what one might call immediate and long-term reasons.

The immediate reason is, of course that right now insulating homes and making them more energy efficient represents the best path in combatting fuel poverty, and ensuring that older and more vulnerable householders have warm homes to live in: cost effective for the future both in terms of fuel bills paid out by residents, and costs of support or intervention where a cold home for an elderly person might be the end of living in it independently.

The longer term reason was waiting to be discussed later on the same day in a debate on Climate change, and followed what the Prime minister himself had said immediately after Prime minister’s questions about the G7 summit. The summit had come out with a strong statement about the need to produce an ambitious and binding agreement on Climate change at the Paris Climate change meeting in December: quite right, and the UK along with its EU partners has committed to place an offer on the table for the talks of a 2030 target of at least a of 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. We can do that (we think ) in the UK because our Carbon Budgets, the fourth one of which covering the period bang in the middle of achieving those commitments, has recently been accepted by the government, projects something like a 50% saving in emissions over the same period. Achieve the budget, in short and you have easily discharged the UK’s commitment to the Paris talks.

Well, yes, but as I always tell myself to do, look at the small print. And in the case of the fourth carbon budget, a starting assumption by the Committee on Climate Change in drawing the budget up is that, by the early 2020s we will have made the substantial commitment to reducing emissions that will come from far greater energy efficiency in homes, and in fact they project some 2 million solid wall homes treated, together with 80-90% of possible loft and cavity wall treatments. So if we are nowhere near those levels by that date, something else big will have to go into the carbon budget to save it. I would like to see a substantial increase in retrofitting homes so that we can come close to that ambition as a contribution to carbon budgets, but even a partial achievement will make a big difference on whether we can meet budget requirements or not. So a strong commitment to the Paris talks, (which the Prime minister endorsed) has consequences for what we do about it over the next few years if we really mean what we say.

I wasn’t sure that I would get all this in the answer that the Prime minister would give me to my question: but a general acknowledgement of the importance of energy efficiency in homes, and a generalised commitment to keep funding on track would have been good enough.

What I actually got was a smirking riposte congratulating me on being returned to Parliament because there weren’t many Labour MPs on the South Coast….which I sort of knew already. My fault, I guess for thinking that a pertinent question to the Prime minister in the bear pit of PMQs might get anything other than a joke response

Space aliens insulate three million homes in one year – exclusive.

He's coming to insulate a loft near you...

He’s coming to insulate a loft near you…

Here’s a strange thing. There has been a collapse in cavity wall insulation between last year and this year. Last year, up to April 2012, about 49,000 insulations were completed. This year (up to April 2013), just over 1000 insulations were carried out. This represents, among other things the end of the CERT scheme and the beginning of Green Deal, which, so far has managed to insulate…well, virtually no houses at all. That wasn’t the intention, of course. In the Green Deal Impact Assessment of December 2012, it was envisaged that take up of cavity wall insulation would be about 830,000 with perhaps 1.2 million insulations being conducted by the early 2020s.

Quite a noble ambition but still well short of what might be needed overall since there are over 6 million cavity walls out there waiting to be insulated, 3.7million of which are considered to ‘conventionally easy’ and hence low cost to insulate (See for example the ACE ‘Dead Cert’ report of 2012).

All this isn’t that strange though. What is weird is the story of the incredible disappearing unfilled cavity walls, which have, apparently been vanishing across the countryside at an astonishing rate over the past few months.

Here’s Ed Davey, for example, responding to Luciana Berger s question about collapsing cavity wall insulations on June 6th “…there are very few cavity walls left to fill”.

So how many are the very few? Well I got a sort of answer to that when I asked the Secretary of State a similar question at Energy and Climate Change Committee. He was a bit more forthcoming: what I had to realise was that there are very few, only perhaps 700,000 unfilled cavity walls left. The rest, he said are solid wall or hard to treat properties which do not fall within the scope of the Green Deal.

Hmmm. So in December 2012, the Department is estimating that 830,000 cavities could be filled by 2015, only 130,000 more than it is conceivably possible to fill, according to the Secretary of State.  It really is no wonder that the Green Deal is enabling so few cavities to be filled now if they are disappearing from view at that rate. I make it 3 million cavity walls that have mysteriously been filled between this year and the last – or 3 million and one thousand, if you add the walls that we know have actually been filled with real foam by real installers over the same period.

So an amazingly successful start to the Green Deal: three million and one thousand homes treated. All very encouraging etc., except if you don’t live on Planet Tharg. In which case, it’s all a bit depressing.