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A good start, but councils still need more long-term certainty - Blueprint Coalition response to Heat and Buildings Strategy

22 October 2021

Councils across the country recognise the urgent need to ‘build and retrofit greener’ if the UK is going to meet its carbon emission targets. The current gas crisis has brought home the nation’s vulnerability in terms of future power and heating, and we welcome the publication of the Heat and Buildings Strategy.

As a coalition of local government organisations, environmental groups and research institutions, we believe that local authorities have an essential role to play in decarbonising our homes. Whilst the strategy contains some positive, albeit limited, policy announcements such as the £450m Boiler Upgrade Scheme, many decisions are left hanging – particularly in relation to home energy efficiency for the able to pay and private rental sectors. 

The strategy does acknowledge the important work that councils are doing to retrofit homes, and the barriers faced. But it has not offered solutions, simply identifying that there is ‘further work to do’ to address these. We hope that retrofit will be a priority area for the new Local Net Zero Forum proposed in the Net Zero Strategy, so that councils can deliver comprehensive area-based approaches and crucially build local supply chains over time.

Local councils have already started retrofitting thousands of homes for people on low incomes, using government grants such as the Local Authority Delivery Scheme and the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund. We welcome the announcement of additional funding for these schemes but the commitments announced in the Heat and Buildings Strategy fall below those made in the Conservative Party manifesto, with less than half of the promised £2.5bn of funding for the Home Upgrade Grant announced. Even a full allocation of the £9.2bn promised in the manifesto will only support the retrofit of a fraction of homes with poor energy performance.

Accessing government grant funding remains problematic for many councils – our Blueprint calls for a simplification of the application process, and the flexibility to blend different funding streams. The government must address this, to enable the ‘levelling up’ of the energy efficiency of homes across the country, and we welcome the commitment in the Net Zero Strategy to explore how funding can be simplified and consolidated.

A major ramp-up of retrofit and low carbon heat skills is urgently required to deliver the scale of work needed, and to give the public confidence about the quality of installation. 23 million homes - or 1.5 per minute - need retrofitting by 2050, according to the Climate Change Committee, yet there are only 1000 accredited heat pump installers compared with 96,000 installers of mainly gas boilers and only 2% of the 36,000 retrofit co-ordinators needed.  

The Heat and Buildings Strategy makes a start in addressing these concerns, and we would expect the funding support for heat pumps to encourage initiatives by the private sector to develop installation skills. The strategy is weaker though in relation to retrofit skills, and has not recognised the essential role that local authorities can play in building these, working with employers and local colleges. Without sufficient investment in skills, councils will be left competing for qualified installers to deliver local schemes, and will face cost increases and quality issues. 

Councils can play a crucial role in encouraging retrofit of owner-occupied homes, but have been hobbled by a lack of national government incentives and regulations. The Boiler Upgrade Scheme is a start, but does not help those living in energy inefficient homes that are not heat pump ready. It is disappointing that the Heat and Buildings Strategy has failed to provide a replacement for the green homes grant voucher scheme. Whilst we welcome private sector initiatives such as green mortgages, demand for these will remain low without some element of grant funding, and other incentives such as a variable Stamp Duty Land Tax. 

The government has also missed an opportunity to reform the planning system and building regulations to enable local authorities to mandate installation of energy efficiency measures when changes are made that require planning permission. And there is no additional funding for the training of building control officers, or to support the time they need to assure retrofit quality, so there is no repeat of a Grenfell disaster.  

The Heat and Buildings Strategy does not confirm the policy on private-rented sector homes – we are calling for immediate implementation of proposed regulation that would require the energy performance of all rented homes to be EPC C by 2028, and for the cap on landlord costs to be set at £15,000 to allow for deeper retrofit. We look forward to the confirmation of this policy by government.  

As the Blueprint Coalition, we are calling on government to show an equal determination in addressing these fundamental issues. As local authorities address them at the local level, they must have committed resource, certainty and support at the national level. We want to work with government to meet local and national emissions targets, but we must include retrofit if we are to achieve them.

Harriet Lamb, CEO of Ashden said: “We urge the government now to add the detail on how the nation’s builders will be trained in retrofit and so ensure that targets to decarbonise our homes can be achieved. We have recently witnessed the impact of skills shortages on the haulage industry and many other sectors, we cannot afford for a repeat of this in the retrofit and low carbon heating sectors. 

Paula Hewitt, President of ADEPT said: “Local authorities have shown determination to tackle the energy efficiency challenge. Many have undertaken detailed assessments of their housing stock, and developed retrofit pathways and plans. But with essential questions about long-term funding, incentives and retrofit skills training still unanswered, councils may struggle to deliver at scale, leaving the UK’s buildings decarbonisation target at risk.”