Warmer homes are good for public health, your pocket and the planet

Tradesman fits insulation in attic

Retrofitting can mean simple measures like installing loft insulation or double glazing - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We might be heading towards warmer weather, but there is still a spring chill in the air that should remind us of one of the legacies of a winter in lockdown.

As we have spent much more time than usual inside our houses this winter, many of us have noticed higher heating bills.

At a time of economic uncertainty and job losses that is a worry for many people. A total of 11.1% of households in Norwich, equating to 7,100 homes, are in fuel poverty – that is, they had to choose between heating, or eating.

A shocking statistic shows that nearly 10,000 deaths every year are caused by living in cold homes, as people, including children, living in cold and damp homes are much more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease.

There are various ways of addressing fuel poverty – both Labour and Conservative politicians have for example proposed energy price freezes – but by far the surest way, which also brings a host of other benefits, is to reduce the amount of energy needed to keep a home warm through insulation and through improving the efficiency of heating technologies, known as retrofitting.

Retrofitting can range from relatively simple measures like installing loft insulation or double glazing to improve energy efficiency, to “deep” retrofit which can involve looking at all the sources of heat loss from a building and then remodelling the whole house to eliminate leaks, while also changing the source of energy such as installing heat-pumps or solar panels.

Retrofitting helps people financially not only by reducing their energy bills. It is also – or it could also be – a major source of high-paying jobs locally.

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Jobs in insulation and energy efficiency are highly labour-intensive, they can’t be carried out by machines and a lot of people and skills of various kinds are needed.

A recent report has predicted at least one million new jobs in the low-carbon sectors by 2030 and nearly 50% of these could be in retrofitting-related work.

In Norwich and Yarmouth alone, there could be more than 2,200 new full-time jobs directly created through retrofitting just those homes with the lowest energy performance, plus many more jobs if a local supply chain is established.

Increasing the amount of houses that benefit from retrofitting is also imperative because, as we emerge from the pandemic, we will be facing an even bigger crisis: climate change.

Retrofitting homes is one of the most important parts of addressing the climate emergency. Residential buildings account for nearly 30% of Norwich’s direct carbon emissions, that is more than 130,000 tonnes of CO2. We need to get that down to zero as soon as possible – many councils and campaigners say within 10 years – if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown.

Decarbonising housing means a combination of two things: reducing the amount of energy that a house needs as far as possible, and switching what energy is still needed to renewables.

So retrofitting is good for the public health, for your pocket, for the local economy and jobs and for the planet.

That’s why Green Party councillors are this week proposing that Norwich City Council adopts an ambitious plan for retrofitting housing across tenures.

Current action isn’t anywhere near enough.

To meet climate targets, we need to be insulating well over 3,600 homes every year at the very minimum: currently the rate of insulation is only around a few dozen homes each year.

And those retrofitting measures that are being carried out are often done piecemeal, missing opportunities to be more efficient through addressing several needs at the same time (for example switching heating systems at the same time as doing insulation or installing a new kitchen).

There’s been a lot of focus on energy efficiency in new-build housing after Norwich’s Goldsmith Street council housing development won awards.

But more than 80% of the homes we will be inhabiting in 2045 are already built, so while new-build homes are a key part of the mix, improving the energy performance of the existing is even more important.

Yet, despite its urgency on multiple fronts, retrofitting doesn’t currently feature at all in the city council’s plan for economic recovery from Covid, and the council has no strategy for either how it intends to retrofit its own housing long-term or how it will encourage this high-value sector across the city.

The Green Party motion that I am proposing seeks to address that lack and calls on the council to play a leading role in bringing together local businesses, housing providers, energy experts and the general public to work out a joined-up approach to retrofitting at scale across the city in a way that delivers maximum benefits in terms of addressing fuel poverty, providing local jobs, and addressing climate change.

There are two major challenges, both of which are addressed in the motion. First: where will the money come from? Retrofitting isn’t cheap; that’s one reason why Government needs to be involved.

The Government’s current funding promises fall short of what is required by around £17billion.

But Green councillors have proposed that the council should also look to alternative sources of finance, beyond Government grants, that can deliver added value to the local economy.

These include Community Municipal Investment Bonds and working with community energy groups. Furthermore, there are potential sources of funding for innovative projects that can pioneer a way forward for others, providing an incentive for the council to be bold and innovate.

These won’t replace the missing Government funding, but they’ll go some way there and could set a standard for others to follow.

The second major challenge is training up a workforce able to fulfil the momentous task of retrofitting at scale.

The Green Party motion calls on the council to work together with local educational institutions, businesses, and organisations such as the Local Enterprise Partnership, to develop forward-looking training programmes so that young people can learn the skills required to meet the retrofitting ambition.

In that way, this motion also offers a way forward and a good career for young people who may be uncertain about the future.

Jamie Osborn is a councillor for The Green Party

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