Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 00:00 UK

Government 'must back insulation'

By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

House thermogram (SPL)
Much energy is lost from the home through poor insulation

The winner of a clean energy prize says government must show much greater urgency in insulating people's homes.

West Yorkshire's Kirklees Council has won the prestigious Ashden award for its major home refurbishment programme.

The council says the UK government could save families £200 a year and cut greenhouse gases if it guaranteed the cash for a nationwide "refurb".

The government says it plans a nationwide scheme based on Kirklees - and says the criticisms are misguided.

Homes are the unnoticed polluters: they produce about a third of our greenhouse gases - and home energy bills are a burden for many.

Kirklees Council tackled both issues at once by sending hit squads of workers street to street, offering everyone free loft and cavity wall insulation with no conditions.

It says it is the most effective way of getting homes refurbished, and that it saves a third of the cost if work is done on a street-by-street basis. It also says it removes the social stigma of having to apply for a means-tested government grant and the problem of having to find a trustworthy contractor.

Energy savings

So far, 25,000 homes have been made over. Kirklees says the average saving in energy bills is £200 a year. One key factor is that the council guarantees the work as a protection against cowboy builders.

Nearly 100 full-time jobs and 60 part-time roles have been created as a result of the scheme. Installations are proceeding at a rate of 600 a week, making this easily the UK's largest refurbishment scheme.

The government, which will soon breach its own Warm Homes Act mandating insulation standards for poor households, says it plans a great British "refurb" modelled on Kirklees.

Every home capable of having it should get free loft or cavity wall insulation
Dr Phil Webber

It agrees a major initiative is vital because only 1% of housing stock is renewed every year. If existing homes are not radically improved, it will be impossible for the UK to meet climate change targets.

A government spokesman said: "We'd agree that up-scaling to a door-to-door approach is going to be needed. Under our existing schemes, we're aiming for loft and cavity wall insulation in all appropriate homes by 2015."

Questions remain, though, about funding and delivery.

The Treasury has resolved that energy companies will have to take responsibility for delivering refurbishment schemes. This leaves government money untouched but it will act as an indirect levy on electricity bills. Government argues that it will save everyone money in the long run.

Dr Phil Webber, who runs the Kirklees scheme, says the government hasn't committed enough cash to get it started. "Every home capable of having it should get free loft or cavity wall insulation," he says.

"But funding levels (with energy company schemes known as CERT and CESP) are not sufficient to enable the current schemes to scale up.

"Also between 30 and 70% of homes - depending on the area - have solid walls. We've got to do something about them, too."

'Upfront financing'

Kirklees has trialled an external render-based product that is approved by English Heritage and mimics the look of brick, stone render or even Yorkshire stone. It water-proofs - and insulates better than cavity wall filling. But costs are significantly greater at £6-10k per house.

A government spokesman said: "The need for more expensive adaptations like solid wall insulation is what our Great British Refurb proposals are all about. We want to make financing available upfront with repayments made over a long period.

"Repayments would pass from one property owner to the next. The intention is to enable a full property re-fit in seven million homes by 2020, every home by 2030."

But Dr Webber said the government's ambitions would fail through a lack of capital.

"The government should find the capital," he said. "It is the major shareholder in banks and it should insist that the banks put up the money for this - it's a safe bet that actually saves money.

"And the government could underwrite it. The Treasury needs to be bolder - why they don't do it, I don't know. We have got the car-scrapping scheme in very quick time - I don't understand why it hasn't happened in the energy field."

The government spokesman said the whole refurb programme was under consultation to run from 2012 and was beyond current spending programmes.

But campaigners are also baffled that this sort of labour-intensive home insulation has not been more of a priority in the recent fiscal stimulus as it creates so many "shovel-ready" jobs. It is the sort of stimulus recommended by the former chief Treasury economist Lord Nicholas Stern.

They are also dubious that the power suppliers - who have been tasked with delivering the refurbishment - are up to the task.

Andrew Warren from the industry lobby group the Association for Conservation of Energy says many power suppliers have decided to give away low-energy light bulbs rather than attempt to get people to insulate their homes better.

"This is a cop-out," he told BBC News. "The firms aren't even forced to monitor whether the bulbs are even used or whether they are left in the box. The government is letting the power firms determine the pace of improvement to our housing stock - and the power firms have an incentive for us to keep using electricity."

And Dr Webber said that to be successful, schemes had to be locally guaranteed and facilitated: "You've got to make it easy for people. If there's no loft hatch we'll put one in for you.

"If you need scaffolding we'll do it - at no extra cost… we don't send you off to get a builder. We have a consultant on renewables, so you know what the best options are. These are complicated matters and I think the government hasn't understood how much help people need."

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