The Green Homes Grant scheme – a marathon or a sprint?

NIBE‘s Phil Hurley ponders whether the Green Homes Grant scheme is a marathon or a sprint.

After what has been a long year plagued by covid-19, people are starting to wonder when things will ever go back to normal. Unemployment has sky-rocketed, the furlough scheme is due to come to an end, and with winter around the corner, concerns around heating bills are on the rise. For those living in leaky and inefficient homes, a winter indoors doesn’t look very inviting: it will be just as cold as any year, only more expensive. This was all foreshadowed by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) back in May 2020. Their analysis showed that those in the worst-performing homes could see their normal monthly winter bills rise by £49 a month during a winter lockdown – a price hike that homeowners and tenants could all do without. By July, the Government had addressed the need to make homes more energy efficient and announced a Green Homes Grant scheme to help cut fuel bills and carbon emissions from fuel bills. Fast forward to September and the scheme is now live.

A grant-based scheme of this sort is long overdue; since 2012, energy efficiency installations have fallen by 95% since 2012, contradicting the Government’s low carbon commitments. After months spent concerned around potential loss of income, tradespeople installing eligible measures under the grant – including insulation measures and low carbon heating systems such as heat pumps – could now be inundated with work. However, as work to improve England’s housing stock begins in what will need to be a speedy round of catch-up, there is a question that can’t be ignored: how much can we really get done by March 2021?

Chief medical advisor Chris Whitty warned members of the public against stockpiling food and medicine back in March, adding that the outbreak would be a ‘marathon not a sprint’. However, if we look to the Green Recovery, and the Green Homes Grant scheme specifically, the message seems somewhat different. Surely, there is scope for extending help for home improvements well beyond 31st March 2021, by which time any work under the scheme should be complete. It goes without saying that near-term home energy efficiency improvements are essential: heating accounts for a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency is also labour intensive and is an obvious place to start in the wake of an economic crisis. However, there are some limitations that only long term intervention will be able to overcome: demand is likely to outweigh the £2 billion budget set aside for the scheme; many retrofits are likely to be subject to the winter weather; and six months is too short a time to promote awareness and confidence in the scheme, particularly in the current climate of uncertainty.

The next six months are essential to setting us off on the right foot. The Government has said that 650,000 homes are likely to be improved through the scheme, offering £5,000 vouchers to homeowners from the end of September – rising to £10,000 for poorer households. These vouchers will not just ensure that homes are more affordable for homeowners and tenants at a time when finances are tight but will also support an estimated 100,000 jobs. It is a huge step in the right direction and one which aligns with UK plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. However, the journey to net zero was never going to happen overnight: almost all replacement heating systems for existing homes must be low-carbon or ready for hydrogen by 2035; no new homes should be connected to the gas grid from 2025; over 19 million heat pumps need to be installed by 2050; and most heating system installers need to be upskilled.

Installers made their views on the Green Homes Grant scheme clear this month in a survey conducted by MCS. Of the 800 certified contractors surveyed, three quarters demonstrated ‘high levels of confidence’ in the scheme, whilst 61% said it will help with business recovery. This optimism has a notable caveat: almost half of those surveyed believe the grant should extended to 18 months or more. Chief Executive officer at MCS, Ian Rippin echoed this viewpoint by stating that ‘realistically, six months is not enough time’.

The Green Homes Grant scheme may feel like a sprint, but the real finish line is positioned well beyond 31st March 2021. Far more intervention is needed between now and 2050, by which time the UK will need to be carbon neutral. This is just the beginning of a very long race ahead.

More information on the Green Homes Grant can be found here.

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