OPINION: Insulation taskforce will help with Norwich's cost of living
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This year is looking pretty desperate for many families.
The cost of living crisis is already hitting, and it will only get worse in April, with energy bills going up by 50%,thousands of households facing fuel poverty, and thousands living in cold and unhealthy homes.
Fuel poverty already kills 10,000 people every year in the UK, including in Norfolk, where we are particularly badly affected because we have older, leakier houses and lower average incomes than the rest of the country.
With the war in Ukraine threatening to push up global energy prices, this situation doesn’t look likely to get any better.
But there is a solution. The single most effective way to help bring down energy bills for families who are struggling is to insulate homes and provide cheap, secure, local renewable energy.
Given the situation the world is facing, it may sound completely unrealistic to suggest that people could not have to pay energy bills at all, but that is entirely possible. Not only that, but it is possible to end reliance on energy imports from dictatorships such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, and end the obscene practice of energy companies like BP and Shell making billions in excess profits out of the current crisis.
One of the reasons that the country has ended up in the cost of living crisis is because of a chronic failure, over decades, to improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock. The UK has some of the worst-performing housing in terms of energy efficiency in all of Europe. When average household energy bills rise to nearly £2,000 or more in April, that is money that is literally going out the window – and out of the door, roof, and walls.
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Similarly, the government and local councils have failed to support the installation of heat pumps and solar panels at anywhere near the rate needed to provide clean and affordable energy to every household. Instead, they have continued to subsidise fossil fuel companies who have recorded record profits at a time when many people are struggling to pay their bills.
The solution is staring us in the face: insulate homes on a massive scale, fast; and urgently ramp up renewable energy provision through installing heat pumps and solar panels for homes.
Insulating, and installing these pumps and solar panels – known as retrofitting when done to existing houses – could save well over £7.5bn per year in fuel bills, mitigate the cost of cold and damp homes to the NHS and social care services by £6.6 billion, and create between 150,000 and 450,000 new jobs by 2030, including over 6,000 immediate-term jobs in Norfolk.
And on top of those benefits, there is an urgent need to insulate houses and go green if we are to reduce the impacts of climate change. The government’s Climate Change Committee says that virtually every house in the country will need to be upgraded to meet climate change targets by 2050. To put that in context, that is equivalent to retrofitting two houses every single minute for the next 30 years.
That sounds like an eye-wateringly massive challenge, and it is. But it is possible, with political will. That is why I and my fellow Green Party councillors proposed to Norwich City Council this week, and Norfolk County Council the establishment of a “retrofit taskforce”.
This would bring together energy and construction businesses, architects, community energy companies and education providers, coordinated by the local councils, to devise a workable plan for retrofitting our homes.
As Greens see it, the objectives of the retrofit taskforce would be threefold. First, kickstart a programme to improve the energy efficiency of council and social housing.
There is room for ambition here – in Sussex, Green Party councillors are leading efforts to pool budgets across six different local councils to create a £1 billion fund dedicated to retrofitting 44,000 council and social homes. Improving social housing will not only benefit people on low incomes, it will help provide economies of scale and support the retrofitting industry after the government’s disastrous handling of schemes meant to encourage insulation.
Second, build a local supply chain. There is currently a serious shortage of workers trained to carry out insulation and renewable energy installation in homes.
The Norfolk retrofit taskforce would work with vocational education providers and FE colleges as well as local businesses and the renewable energy and construction industries to give people the skills to do this work, as well as work placements. This could be a true levelling up for the region.
Third, scale up. Huge sums will need to be spent to make sure that every house is warm and has clean, secure energy. (It’s worth noting that the costs of doing that would be far less than the cost to human life, the economy, and the planet of letting things continue as they are.)
But there are also potentially huge paybacks, in the creation of good jobs, improved health, and more money in people’s pockets, not to mention a greener county.
That is why a coordinated effort is needed to ensure there is investment from bodies such as the Local Enterprise Partnership as well as councils and the government, so that the cost does not fall on the shoulders of households.
More jobs, warmer houses, more secure energy sources: retrofitting could transform Norfolk and greatly improve people's lives.