Emergency insulation before the end of the year

Councils still have time to make sure their residents are warm this winter

As autumn approaches and families are worrying about how they will afford to heat their homes this winter, everyone is waiting to see the results of the prime ministers plans to tackle the energy crisis. While it’s vital to get money into the pockets of those who need it as soon as possible, we also need to upgrade our draughty housing so we are more resilient to energy crises in the future. Improving our homes brings a slew of benefits that include reducing energy bills and reliance on foreign energy imports, improving our health, and generating jobs and community wealth.

Through the Great Homes Upgrade, we have been calling for the national government to begin a mass upgrade of Britain’s housing. But even without this, local authorities can take meaningful action to support those worst affected by high energy bills. Our new research has estimated that a local authority could install basic energy efficiency measures like loft and cavity wall insulation in a relatively energy-inefficient neighbourhood of 670 households for just £880 per household. This would save each household £220 a year on average. Altogether, that would mean the local authority spending £573,000 on the whole neighbourhood, and neighbourhood savings of £144,000 a year.

This means local authorities should be able to initiate a retrofit programme without waiting for central government. If scaled up to all the neighbourhoods in our chosen local authority — not just the most fuel-poor — it would cost significantly more, at £54m. This ought to be supported by central government funding, alongside a mix of other finance sources.

If local authorities want to make a dent in the skyrocketing cost of living, they need to understand which measures will have the most impact in the short term. Councils should consider the cost of purchasing and installation, speed, required skills, carbon-cutting potential, and the short-term cost-saving potential of different measures. Our analysis suggests that loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, draught proofing, thermostatic radiator valves, smart heating controls, and energy audits are the best measures for this.

Local authorities can’t upgrade all the homes in their area at once. Given this, they should prioritise a few neighbourhoods using a methodology that accounts for local need (how many households will struggle to pay their bills) and deliverability (how quickly and easily upgrades can be installed). There are lots of ways of calculating this, but the best is to use data on fuel poverty and the energy efficiency ratings of housing as proxies for need, and housing tenure and type to inform deliverability.

As part of this, local authorities should prioritise neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of social and owner-occupied housing. These properties will be more easily influenced by current best practice than those in the private rented sector (PRS). Landlords need more persuading to install measures, and existing regulation such as Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES) are often neglected. But private rented homes should not be ignored. Councils should introduce mandatory landlord licensing to fund communication with landlords, and ultimately better enforcement of MEES. Liverpool City Council is a good example, having licensed 52,000 properties over five years while identifying more than 1,900 properties that needed home improvements.

This means local authorities should be able to initiate a retrofit programme without waiting for central government.”

It is important that councils start with a few individual streets, estates or neighbourhoods before scaling up. Neighbourhood-based approaches are more effective in engaging residents, particularly when outreach and mobilisation is done through existing communities and networks. This approach also saves money as councils can buy materials and installation services in bulk, and means they can apply learnings from one neighbourhood before expanding to other neighbourhoods.

But when councils want to go beyond a few neighbourhoods, they can scale up by working in partnership with nearby councils to put together a central organisation, such as a retrofit delivery agency, to facilitate financing and delivery. The vehicle would offer grants and low-interest loans to residents who fit certain criteria. Money would be limited to the target area and adjusted to fit residents who live in social housing, privately rent, or own their homes. This would then be rolled out to other neighbourhoods using grants and loans. But local authorities will need new sources of finance, particularly grants from central government, to grow this from one neighbourhood to the entire local authority and beyond. Loans to households can also play a significant role, but we recommend that households keep 50% energy savings, to protect them from losing out if energy prices fall.

One of the most binding constraints on councils is limited staffing. To overcome this the council should put together a retrofit taskforce, made up of local and regional government representatives, social landlords, building authorities, colleges, energy suppliers, industry experts and investors. The taskforce should be put together in partnership with a group of councils, with each dedicating resources and staff to underpin it.

Upgrading our draughty, cold homes is arguably one of the toughest infrastructure challenges the UK has ever seen. Our national government should be taking responsibility and putting £11.7bn towards a Great Homes Upgrade over the rest of this Parliament — we shouldn’t be solely relying on already stretched local authorities. However, local authorities are still trusted institutions that can deliver meaningful protection this winter and beyond. Despite the new prime minister’s energy price freeze, many families will still struggle to afford their bills this winter. Now is the time for councils to step up. Upgrading our leaky and poor housing stock is the best way to make sure everyone can stay warm in winter, and in the winters to come.

Image: iStock

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