Not insulating homes now looks like an own goal for the government
Given the astronomical rise in energy prices announced on Friday, which are only set to get worse in an energy crisis that may last a decade, former government advisers are now briefing that “ministers are increasing the risk of a supply shortage by failing to tell the public to save energy and should embark on an emergency program of insulation [my emphasis] and efficiency to reduce demand.”
No wonder: Britain’s antiquated housing stock is among the leakiest in Europe, better at heating the climate as a whole than our homes. 63% of domestic energy use in Britain is spent on heating homes, and mostly wasted, while the reliance on gas for heating — in around 90% of homes— means that Britain consumes what is now precious and ruinously expensive gas at twice the European average.
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If only we’d been warned! But wait… Less than a year ago, for an UnHerd documentary, I spent time with activists from Insulate Britain who had embarked on a divisive and much-derided campaign of direct action to demand exactly such a state-backed emergency insulation program. Their methods may not have been popular, but were they right?
Certainly, not insulating British homes looks like a massive own goal for the government. As a 2019 House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report made clear, “total energy use could be reduced by an estimated 25 per cent by 2035 through cost-effective investments in energy efficiency and low carbon heat—equivalent to the annual output of six Hinkley Point C” nuclear power stations, while additionally “66,000 to 86,000 new jobs could be sustained annually across all UK regions” in the process.
But this isn’t what we got. As a 2020 report for the House of Lords observed, “the rate of loft and wall insulation measures going into houses under government schemes is 95% lower than in 2012,” meaning that our national dependency on imported gas, and our personal exposure to ruinous heating bills, is far higher than it could or should have been. How did this happen? As always in this country, it comes down to our state’s incompetence.
The most recent government attempt at insulating British homes, the rushed-through 2020 Green Homes Grant, was scrapped after a few short months of chaotic failure. As the Conservative chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the MP Philip Dunne remarked, “The Green Homes Grant scheme is a good idea but its implementation has been woeful,” turning into a “job destruction” program as householders found it impossible to gain access to funding and contractors were left unpaid, even where they were willing to hire and train new employees for such a short-lived scheme. As the Environmental Audit Committee found, the “botched” scheme was “rushed in conception and poorly implemented” and the “scheme administration appears nothing short of disastrous.”
Once again, everything comes down to eroded state capacity: the government came up with a good idea, couldn’t work out how to implement it, and outsourced the scheme design to an external contractor, ICF Consulting Services Ltd, who overpromised but couldn’t deliver. At the same time, excessive government red tape meant that of the 7,400 building companies eligible to apply for accreditation, only three actually bothered. The majority of householders applying were either rejected or withdrew their applications, meaning that instead of insulating 600,000 homes, only 47,500 were ever insulated, at a total cost of £256 million on the work, and £50.5 million on admin costs alone. Perhaps this was Insulate Britain’s biggest mistake: the greatest problem they faced isn’t that the government wasn’t willing to insulate homes, it’s that our state is now simply too incompetent.