13 Sep 2021
Residential housing is responsible for around 22% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, most of which is due to natural gas used in heating.
Overall, the energy efficiency of the UK’s housing stock is very poor on energy efficiency. Only a third of homes are well insulated and around 13% of households are in fuel poverty, which is estimated to affect 3.18 million people.
The government is yet to publish a comprehensive strategy for reducing emissions from households in line with carbon reduction goals. However, it has published proposals to require landlords to ensure the properties they let are well insulated (EPC C) by 2028, as well as a consultation on a strategy for eradicating fuel poverty by 2030. The draft fuel poverty strategy has been warmly welcomed by fuel poverty campaigners.
The big challenge lies in replacing gas-fired central heating in people’s homes. The Climate Change Committee (which advises government) has said that this should be achieved primarily through fitting heat pumps. They’ve said that 5.5 million homes should be fitted with heat pumps by 2030, rising to 12 million by 2035. Friends of the Earth advises a more ambitious target of 10 million heat pumps by the end of 2030 to cut carbon emissions more quickly. So far, the government has only committed to fitting 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028.
Local authorities don’t yet have a central role in energy efficiency and the switch to eco-heating, but Friends of the Earth is calling for them to do so in a Blueprint they’ve produced with council organisations. The Climate Change Committee has also recommended that councils produce an energy efficiency and decarbonised heat strategy, working with energy companies and others.
Fortunately, local authorities do already play a central role in ensuring that new buildings are low or zero carbon. Local authorities need to be setting out strong policies to achieve this in their Local Plans, but local decision-making will be strengthened by a clearer national policy framework. The decision in 2015 to cancel the national zero-carbon homes policy has led to an estimated 430,000 tonnes of avoidable CO2 emissions in the atmosphere from new housing between 2016 and mid-2018.
Councils should ensure all homes are well insulated to a minimum of Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) level C by 2030, to eradicate the number of people living in fuel poverty as fast as possible (those making decisions between either eating or heating), and make a proportional contribution to the 1 million eco-heating heat pumps that need to be fitted in the UK each year.
What councils should do
Friends of the Earth has identified how many homes are well insulated in each council in England and Wales (which is fewer than half in most places), and how many homes need to be brought up to standard each year. They've also identified how many oil or gas boilers need to be replaced every year with eco-heating.
Councils can make a difference to housing sector emissions by retrofitting publicly owned buildings and implementing regulation on new developments. They also have a role in regulating the private rented sector. But it's worth noting, there’s little they can do to improve insulation levels in owner-occupied homes.
Local planning authorities can also use Local Plan policies and supplementary planning guidance to require new buildings to be zero carbon and encourage the adoption of proven design and assessment frameworks such as BREEAM and Passivhaus. It makes no sense for what is planned and built today to be delivered in a way, or in places, that will require costly retrofitting tomorrow.
Points 13 to 19 in our Climate Action Plan for councils suggest councils should:
13. Retrofit council-owned properties with high levels of insulation and heat pumps where possible.
Housing should be insulated to a minimum of EPC C standard. This means homes should have good loft insulation, double-glazing, draughts eradicated and cavity wall insulation. In addition, eco-heating options such as heat pumps need to be fitted where possible (although it's worth noting that not all homes are suitable for heat pumps).
14. Help energy companies target fuel poor or vulnerable households with energy efficiency measures.
Energy companies have an obligation to help poor and vulnerable households fit the insulation described above, and also in some cases to install external insulation on solid wall properties.
15. Enforce minimum energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector.
Councils have a duty to enforce minimum energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector, although most don’t. Oxford City Council is one of the leading councils enforcing these standards.
16. Require higher standards than current national standards for privately built new homes, including requiring the use of heat pumps for heating where possible.
This is important because higher standards under the Future Homes Standard (a government policy) won’t come into effect until 2025, so homes built between now and then could need costly retrofits. Cambridge City Council is leading by example by requiring higher standards for privately built new homes and ensuring housing built on council land is extremely energy efficient (PDF). New housing should rely electric heating (preferably by heat pumps) and shouldn't be connected to the gas grid. All new housing (and other buildings) should be zero carbon as soon as possible, and by 2025 at the latest. All new developments should also be designed to reduce emissions through orientation of buildings, be built using low-carbon materials, incorporate green space and, where possible, install renewable energy.
17. Enforce building standards.
The cuts made to council funding have made many unable to ensure builders are using the right types of insulation or the correct quantities. A lack of inspection enables builders to cut corners and their own costs, but the homes will cost more to heat for future homeowners.
18. Require buildings built on council land to be extremely energy efficient, using the Passivhaus standard or similar.
Passivhaus is built to such a high standard, and is so well insulated, that it requires very little heating to keep warm. While it costs more to build these homes, they are far cheaper to heat. Local authority-owned new housing developments should be built to Passivhaus standards or equivalent. Some councils are already making good progress; Norwich City Council built 93 Passivhaus homes for social housing in 2019, and Exeter City Council plans to build 500 Passivhaus homes in the next five years to address fuel poverty in the city.
19. Develop a heating and energy efficiency strategy for the area, including identify skills and training development priorities.
Councils should be required and empowered to produce a Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategy that delivers deep emissions reductions by 2030. As part of this, they should be provided with the responsibility and resources to coordinate an energy efficiency and eco-heating transformation programme. This should include training local people with the skills to get the jobs that such a scheme would deliver. They should resist fossil fuel industry lobbying to switch to hydrogen for heating because this cannot be delivered until well into the 2030s, and in any case is not yet low carbon.
Councils have been warning for some time that they won’t be able to deliver action at the scale and pace commensurate to the climate and ecological emergencies without additional powers and resources. Friends of the Earth has joined local government organisations, academics and other NGOs in setting out a Blueprint of what’s needed from national government to support councils in key policy areas, including retrofitting and planning.
The government has a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from housing, particularly in encouraging energy efficiency in the private rented sector and funding eco-heating.
A comprehensive energy efficiency and heating replacement programme is more efficient and cost effective if carried out on a street by street and area by area approach. Local authorities should be given a central role in coordinating this.
The government did launch a Green Homes Grant for energy efficiency which was very popular with householders, but it also bungled the administration and design of the scheme and has now stopped the scheme. Unless government funds insulation in owner-occupied homes a different way, it’ll have a gaping hole in its carbon reduction strategy. In addition, the UK government has yet to come up with an approach to fund a large and rapid increase in fitting heat pumps. Instead there are worrying signs that it's falling for the lobbying by the gas industry, who are promoting the use of hydrogen made from fossil fuels.
The planning system
The planning system also has a major role to play in delivering on the government’s net zero target. However, without significant changes to the national planning system local planning authorities will continue to find it difficult to secure zero/ low-carbon development. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) needs to be brought in line with the clear and specific duty that local planning should address climate change as set out in the 2004 planning Act. This can be achieved by ensuring that the delivery of the UK government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is made a specific strategic policy priority for planning in the NPPF.