by Aris Roussinos
Monday, 29
August 2022
Debate
10:30

Insulate Britain was right all along

Not insulating homes now looks like an own goal for the government
by Aris Roussinos
(Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

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.

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. 

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Matt M
Matt M
28 days ago

I suspect Aris must be too young to remember that such schemes have been available for many years and have been widely adopted. I had two previous lofts done for free under similar schemes. I suspect the reason the figures for insulating homes was low in 2020 is because they were all done in the previous decade.

There are of course many hard-to-impossible to insulate houses in the country, particularly in the countryside. But that doesn’t mean a government scheme could do anything noticeable.

Last edited 28 days ago by Matt M
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
28 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Yup. Got the walls done for free about 10 years ago, along with acres of loft insulation that I get lost in whenever I go up there.

Michael T
Michael T
28 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Our rental flat in London has some “double-glazed” windows that a local builder said were likely installed decades ago under a scheme sponsored by the local council. Unbelievably, the installers just stuck two panes of glass together, with no gap in between, so that they would fit into the existing frame! Energy savings therefore negligible.

N Forster
N Forster
27 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Yep, my old council flat was upgraded over a decade ago under a “Modern homes initiative”.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago

Domestic electricity consumption represents less than a third of all electricity consumption – industrial and commercial consumption is far higher. Effectively insulating domestic homes would be very expensive, very intrusive, and would take years. It should shave a couple of percentage points off total consumption in the long run, but any implication that by itself it could significantly reduce the risk of blackouts this winter is deceitful. It certainly couldn’t have happened in sufficient scale in the last couple of years given lockdown restrictions on construction for much of that time. Green energy policies which deprioritised security of supply got us into this mess. Doubling down on green priorities will not get us out of it. This is dreadful stuff, from a writer who appears to have lost his bearings.

Last edited 28 days ago by Stephen Walshe
poli redux
poli redux
28 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I am surprised. The writer is usually astute. But not today.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
27 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Insulating homes would save gas in most cases rather than electricity as that what the majority use to heat their homes

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
27 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The thing is, millions of people’s health is directly affected by the conditions they inhabit in the winter months.
You are right in saying that it’s a minority of energy usage, but it contributes to the vast majority of NHS spend too.
I can tell you from personal experience that you are more likely to get ill in poorly heated houses than in properly heated ones. In my case, it wasn’t serious, but in thousands upon thousands of elderly people’s cases it will be.

Saul D
Saul D
28 days ago

The Government has been plugging away at promoting home insulation for at least 40 years. It’s incorporated into new build regulations and around two thirds of British houses already have insulation. But that’s the bulk of the low hanging fruit done – and it’s slow going because it’s capital intensive. Of the remaining opportunities, between 1/3rd and 1/2 are ‘hard to treat’ due to the characteristics of the existing building.
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/970064/Detailed_Release_-_HEE_stats_18_Mar_2021_FINAL.pdf
The quoted 25% saving ‘in total energy use’ is just referring to total household heating only – not all total energy so is much less than 6 Hinkley Point Cs. And, from the report, the bulk (75%) of that saving comes from switching to heat pumps and boiler improvements – not insulation measures. The underlying document on energy use and savings possible is this one…
https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:00f63e40-5242-4bea-9ec6-2b40785c9586/download_file?file_format=pdf&safe_filename=Rosenow%2Bet%2Bal.%2B2018%2BThe%2Bremaining%2Bpotential%2Bfor%2Benergy%2Bsavings%2Bin%2BUK%2Bhouseholds.pdf&type_of_work=Journal+article
The trade-off is the expense involved in all the building work required for those heat pumps. Is it better to spend £20k/household times 23m houses (£460bn on heat pumps), or commission and build 10 more Hinkley Point C equivalent power stations – total cost £260bn – for £200bn less – and have cheaper and more abundant power directly.

Paul Walsh
Paul Walsh
27 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

Good response. It seems almost nobody thinks that this article has any substance.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
28 days ago

Why should the taxpayer subsidise insulation measures that householders could and should do for themselves?
As for our antiquated housing stock, much of it is very desirable. Has Aris not noticed that most of the architects who foist glass and concrete monstrosities on the rest of us choose themselves to live in antiquated Queen Anne houses arranged around historic garden squares?

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
27 days ago

Householders now have a perfect incentive to insulate for themselves and save money. Things always go wrong when the state intervenes anyway

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
28 days ago

Insulation is good – but no organisation that glues itself to roads to prevent people from getting to hospitals should ever be described as “right”.
I believe David Cameron might be available to offer them (amateur) PR advice.

Last edited 28 days ago by Ian Barton
Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
26 days ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Or burrowing under roads that will cause collapse (Stop the Oil) another Hallam creation.

Maerton Traeneur
Maerton Traeneur
28 days ago

Unfortunately there is some complexity to this – I recently couldn’t get a mortgage for a property that had some new techy and highly energy efficient spray insulation added underfloor, part funded by government, which chartered surveyors seem to hate and advise lenders to veto until further research is done. Surprised this is not more widely known considering how drastically it is affecting some people who thought they were being prudent – there is a summary here: https://www.mortgagestrategy.co.uk/news/spray-foam-insulation-leaves-250000-homes-in-mortgage-limbo/

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
28 days ago

I find it hard to believe that insulating all the homes of Britain will make a huge difference in energy usage. I don’t know, but I think most homes built in the last 30 years are insulated pretty well. People were piling on the loft insulation and getting their cavity walls insulated ages ago. You couldn’t go more than a week without someone calling to offer cavity wall insulation or double glazing. Perhaps there’s some kind of super-insulation we can get. Insulating homes has a diminishing returns effect.

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
27 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

What about all the ancient listed buildings that can’t be demolished, have to be modified according to ridiculous arcane planning strictures?
The problem with a situation like this is that acting in the common interest is declared evil by Western Capitalism. You have to set suppliers against consumers and have a never-ending slug-fest instead.

Aaron James
Aaron James
28 days ago

”“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.”

This is because almost NO elected Politicos have ever worked in any industry which had to make money by producing something. Then they turn it over to the ‘Swamp’ to implement, who are all the products of hard Left Universities who never held a real job, and have the business sense of a squirrel, and the politics of a Castro.

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
27 days ago

Let’s get down to basics. It is no part of what I understand as the function of Government to decide and micro-manage what people decide is right for them, or what they spend their hard earned money on.
Proper border controls?
Yes.
Defence of the realm?
Yes.
Making some attempt to tackle crime?
Yes.
Deciding to make your home valueless by introducing GangGreen nonsense Heat Pumps, Smart Meters, and hosts of debatable “planet saving” requirements?
Sorry, absolutely not. If someone prefers to live in a Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian house with the obvious ‘low hanging fruit’ insulation in the loft, etc, but without double glazing (let alone solid wall and floor insulation, that’s up to them. Generations have happily grown up in these houses, long before any of the “schemes” were introduced.
Government might well advise (but properly, not relying on venal “experts” with a product to push). Some realistic schemes to help the poorest and most vulnerable, OK. There is certainly a case for (realistic) minimum insulation standards for property to let.
But mandatory requirements that require eyewatering amounts and will have marginal benefits to the occupiers? (There are hundreds of thousands of properties today that would be much cheaper to demolish and rebuild, than to match current ill-considered and often inappropriate energy targets.)
No.
Let’s not forget that, not least of the many & eggregious blunders leading to Grenfell was the introduction of inappropriate and poorly installed insulation, under HMG & EU mandate, that would never have saved the cost of insulating, even at today’s pumped up energy prices.

Last edited 27 days ago by Martin Brumby
Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
27 days ago
Reply to  Martin Brumby

What you are saying is that Britain is an irredeemably corrupt economy and any honest, decent schemes will always be derailed by criminal shysters who give brown envelopes to politicians to turn the other way when they cut corners with alacrity.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
28 days ago

They may have been right, but their methodology was woeful. Completely alienated the vast majority of people and damaged what was otherwise a sensible cause.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
27 days ago

Surely the eco sandaloids will tell us that, given our impending Kalahari desert climate, no insulation will be needed?

I have noticed that the same people who wear hoodies and trainer bottoms all year round seem to like to live in conditions that make a jockey’s sauna feel like Greenland in December?

How about wearing more appropriate clothes when its cold instead? I am not suggesting that staying in Norfolk for a Partridge weekend is available to all, but it does give one a view on what cold houses really are.

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
27 days ago

If you equip yourself for winter mountaineering days on Ben Nevis, you will probably find that you can keep warm inside a house in London. Even in winter without adequate heating.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
27 days ago

Are all the homes in Britain owned by government? If not, why don’t home owners just install insulation themselves? Surely there is a British equivalent of Home Depot.

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
27 days ago

It all depends on the cost and who will benefit from it. If you’re elderly and living off a fixed income annuity, you may not have £20k to spare to properly insulate your home.

Jed Marson
Jed Marson
27 days ago

In answer to Saul D…

No, the answer is ‘insulation’. The definition of insulation needs expanding. Let’s take the missed opportunity this year. In June new building regulations made a 31% improvement on such woeful progress it’s lamentable. Given house builders are knocking in 25% net profit on higher price new homes than ever, they could produce Norway like contributions to the grid and Passivhaus dwellings that people would sleep at night in. As it is, new homes owners in 2022 are in the same sewage of energy price hikes as the rest of us AND add to grid demand – instead of supply!

Now let’s look at the other 28 million homes and that definition of insulation. Seal a building and add mechanical ventilation and heat recovery. Take the chimneys down below the insulation and feed foul air out but recover the heat and feed fresh air in down tubes in the chimneys. New inside-the-front-door letterbox seal for a tenner, more to refit the exterior doors with seals. Insulate above the inner wall or externally insulate single walls. If the lintels are solid they’re ‘cold bridges’, so insulate them with high grade internal cover and make pelmets, with curtains three layer, for two air layers.

This will all cost either money from savings that will have lost 18% to inflation by the end of next year or speak to an IFA about long term borrowing as there’s a huge heating bill to pay forever or a loan that gets paid off eventually.

Most importantly. Start now. Winter is coming.

Last edited 27 days ago by Jed Marson
Saul D
Saul D
27 days ago
Reply to  Jed Marson

Give me some numbers. Around two thirds of UK houses have some level of insulation already, many with letter box seals and exterior doors with seals (often part of a double glazing package). If you boost insulation as you say, what level of additional benefit do you get over what we have already? And what will it cost per household? £1000 spend for 23m homes is £23bn – around the same cost as a new nuclear power station. And my preference would be for lots more cheap abundant clean electricity that then makes switching to electric heat pumps a no-brainer economically. By contrast foisting large capital costs on individuals for small annual benefits is a very long and tortuous approach to saving energy, as the 40 years taken to get insulation to this point have shown.

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
27 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

With the possible exception of new build ground source heat pumps, in our climate electric heat pumps are really stupid.
Especially when the genius Beloved Leaders have ensured that few can rely on electricity. And then there is the interesting question, where is all the electricity coming from, for not only heat pumps but Electric Cars as well?
I’ve got a nice stockpile of well seasoned wood and a ton of smokeless fuel, so I’ll be sitting in candle-light. But warm.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
27 days ago
Reply to  Martin Brumby

I’ve recently installed an air-source heat pump, for a pool, which is a good usage case, because the output is ~30⁰C. But that means you can’t simply replace an existing domestic gas boiler – you need wide-bore piping and (ideally) underfloor heating. For most houses it would be almost as cheap to demolish and rebuild. New build is a better case.
They are also quite noisy in operation. Ground-source requires land that most modern houses don’t have. They also lose efficiency as they gradually chill the ground in which they’re installed.

David McKee
David McKee
27 days ago

Yes, of course the protestors had a point. The problem was that they made their point in a totally counterproductive way.
As a matter of fact, we don’t spend 63% of our energy consumption on heating our homes. It’s 31% (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/energy-consumption-in-the-uk-2021). Furthermore, Britain consumes about 1½% of global consumption. So gluing yourself to the M25 won’t save anyone’s planet. Gluing yourself to the Beijing ring road, on the other hand…
Our basic problem is that our housing market is completely c**k-eyed. Land is too expensive (because planning laws artificially restrict the market), and the houses built on them are cheap and shoddy. Building inspectors, where they exist, are not much interested in enforcing the already too lax rules.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
27 days ago

Out of curiosity, why don’t the owners of these homes insulate them? I never relied on the government to get me to insulate mine, I just decided I didn’t want to pay to air condition the neighborhood. Of course, I’m American, and we’re different.

Jane H
Jane H
27 days ago

We had our cavity walls insulated, partly funded by government subsidies. Companies were falling over themselves to reach government targets and homes were bombarded with relevant advertising leaflets.. Any houses built after that government drive will have had to adhere to strict insulation regulations.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
27 days ago

Again who is going to pay to insulate millions upon millions of damp and draughty homes?

John Riordan
John Riordan
26 days ago

Once again, I know writers don’t write their headlines, but still I have to point out the nonsense that this one represents.

No, Insulate Britain was not right, nor is it right now. What’s happened in fact is that market forces have now produced a situation in which millions more homes are commercially viable as candidates for insulation. There was never any need to block roads, interfere with the freedom of others, or maintain the anti-capitalist agenda which groups such as this are really about.

It is really quite ludicrous in fact to maintain any position except that free-market capitalism has once again embarrassed its detractors – or would, at least, if they were less stupid than they are.

Last edited 26 days ago by John Riordan