A lost decade for home insulation

We installed over 2m insulation measures in our homes in 2012. For the last few years, it's been just a tenth of this.

We’re in the midst of yet another winter where people are agonising over whether they can afford to turn on their heating. The UK has some of the leakiest homes in Western Europe, losing heat three times faster than some of our neighbours. This means we have to pay more to heat our homes to a decent level, or risk the health problems that can come with living in a cold home. And if you are a private renter, you are most likely to be affected by a cold or damp home.

Upgrading our homes to make them more energy efficient, through things like insulation, double- and triple-glazing and heat pumps, saves households money and means we use less gas for heating, reducing dangerous carbon emissions. Improving our homes also improves our health. NHS costs could be reduced by £2bn a year, and poor health could be avoided if our homes were brought up to standard by reducing health hazards like cold, damp or falls.

But at the same time that energy bills have risen, we’ve found that government action to insulate our homes has slowed to a crawl.

We looked at the data on the government’s landmark home energy efficiency schemes, and found that the number of homes which have been upgraded through them has dropped around 40% in a single year. The government has several schemes available to support households to install insulation. We found that the total number of households upgraded by the home upgrade grant (HUG) and local authority delivery (LAD) schemes has fallen by 40% in the last year since the year before. Similarly, the number of households upgraded under ECO – the largest and longest running scheme – has fallen by 55% over the past year. The social housing decarbonisation fund (SHDF) has existed for less than two years so it is not possible to compute equivalent figures but it is also down 41% quarter on quarter.

Home energy efficiency measures are a key component of the UK’s policies to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. According to the government’s own climate advisors, the UK should have installed around 2,940,087 insulation measures between 2020 and the end of 2023. But our analysis found a massive gap between these targets and reality: just 464,982 energy efficiency measures have been installed between the start of 2020 and autumn 2023, across the government’s landmark schemes (January 2020 to November 2023 for LAD, HUG and SHDF, January 2020 to September 2023 for ECO). These represent just 15.8% of the installation measures we need.

Figure 1: Home insulations carried out through government schemes have plummeted since 2012, while the need to insulation more homes to meet our climate targets has risen

At the exact moment that energy prices have soared, and our commitments to decarbonise our housing stock have never been clearer, the number of households getting upgraded is at some of the lowest levels we’ve seen in years.. So how did we get here?

Part of the problem is the age of our housing. The UK has a high proportion of housing built before the introduction of energy standards in the 70s and 80s.

But we can’t place blame for the problem at the feet of our housing stock. The reason we’re in the midst of another winter where people are struggling to stay warm in draughty homes, is down to over a decade of government policy failure.

The last two major policy interventions were the 2012 Green Deal and the 2020 Green Homes Grant. Both were poorly designed, failed to boost uptake, and harmed trust among consumers and installers. Meanwhile, in 2015 this government ditched plans to tighten energy efficiency standards for new-build homes. We kept building new homes which were not insulated well enough, and will need to be retrofitted in the future — meaning the number of homes needing to be upgraded has grown over time. The government is only now consulting on the future homes standard, originally due to come into force next year, which will set stricter energy efficiency requirements for new builds. The consultation has been criticised for being delayed and containing weak proposals.

The energy crisis should have been a wakeup call for the government to subsidise basic insulation measures in the UK’s draughtiest homes, as a way to keep bills down for good. Instead, we’ve had a piecemeal approach, and today we’re seeing the results: a drop in government-supported home insulations, when they should be accelerating.

The result is eye-watering energy bills for yet another winter. The government needs to step up its game with a genuine mass insulation scheme and investment in training so we have a well-paid workforce ready to upgrade the nation’s homes.

Image: iStock

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