Ashden on the the need to build and retrofit greener

Harriet Lamb, CEO of sustainability charity Ashden, discusses the Heat and Buildings Strategy and why more needs to be done to address retrofitting in the UK.

As the government commits to “build back better”, there is also an urgent need to build and retrofit greener if the UK is going to meet its carbon emission targets. Last autumn’s gas crisis emphasised the country’s vulnerability in terms of future power and heating, as well as the fact that the Heat and Buildings Strategy, which was unveiled last October, was long overdue.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy offers £5,000 to households to install heat pumps and pledges to invest £60m in heat pump innovation to reduce costs. This is a good start, but only goes part way to solving the problem. The majority of the UK’s homes must be made more energy efficient before gas boilers are replaced, otherwise household electricity costs will rocket. There have been several false starts, but government must set out long-term policy to encourage home insulation.

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), nearly 11m homes need to move from gas to electric heat sources by 2035. The government has set a target of installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028, but although an increasing number are being fitted, just 60,000 heat pumps were installed last year in UK homes. A major ramp-up of both insulation retrofitting and heat pump installation is needed, but the UK does not have enough skilled builders and heating engineers to meet this challenge.

To put this in context, 29 million homes need retrofitting by 2050, according to the CCC – equating to 1.8 per minute. However, there are only 1,000 accredited heat pump installers in the UK, compared with 96,000 installers of mainly gas boilers, and only a small fraction of the UK’s builders are accredited to retrofit homes. Without a major skills boost, it would take centuries, not decades, to change the way we heat our homes.

Meeting the skills gap

An ambitious retrofit programme could create hundreds of thousands of jobs for skilled tradespeople across the country – carpenters, plasterers and electricians.

We will also need a workforce of 36,000 retrofit co-ordinators to ensure insulation work is carried out to rigorous quality standards. At present, we have just 2% of the number needed.

In late 2021, we witnessed the impact of skills shortages on the haulage industry and the resulting fuel crisis. The installer skills gap is also a key blockage that we were expecting the Heat and Buildings Strategy to clear. There is a massive gap between the UK’s current capacity to retrofit homes and install heat pumps, and the sheer volume of work actually needed to achieve zero carbon by 2050.

Pioneering organisations are showing how communities, councils and social enterprises can meet the challenge, but it needs also long-term government action to encourage a large-scale rollout to build and retrofit greener. With an ageing workforce in the building sector, a green skills transition will offer the opportunity to encourage more women and people from Black, Asian and other under-represented groups to seek careers in building a greener future.


Examples of best practice

Carbon Co-op, Greater Manchester – delivering a new end-to-end deep retrofit service, known as People Powered Retrofit. Carbon Co-op has trained more than 200 installers and is working closely with Greater Manchester Combined Authority to scale up its work.

Kensa Group, UK-wide – Kensa manufactures and installs ground-source heat pumps, providing a solution for decarbonising social housing.

Nordic Heat, UK-wide – offers The Heat Academy, a training platform supporting skills in greener heating and cooling.

Retrofit Academy, UK-wide – is accelerating retrofit co-ordinator training nationwide – the organisation is currently working with 800 trainees.

Warmworks Scotland – a fuel poverty initiative that has created more than 140 apprenticeships and uses small and medium-sized enterprises in its supply chain. It has helped 20,000 homes across Scotland become warmer, healthier and more energy efficient.


The government needs to invest in the further education sector to train instructors, develop new courses and provide capital investment for new energy efficiency training facilities and low carbon skills development. Without the right skills, the transition simply won’t happen.

The amendment of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to include climate education and its focus on the key role of employers is welcome. However, we urge that local authorities as well as businesses must be at the heart of local skills improvement plans – councils have a unique understanding of their communities and can ensure that local people from all backgrounds benefit from new green job opportunities. The government’s commitment to local skills improvement should be backed up with devolved funding.


Heating in numbers

  • There are 1.7m gas boilers currently sold in the UK each year.

  • The government has already committed to installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028 in its ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution.

  • Nearly 11m homes need to be made more energy efficient by 2035.

  • The UK needs to train an extra 500,000 tradespeople and construction professionals by 2030 to deliver the retrofit revolution, according to the Construction Leadership Council.

  • Kensa launched its decarbonised, low-cost heating solution last November at welcometogreenstreet.com to show how it will require few subsidies, create jobs, save carbon and can be delivered immediately.

  • Organisations such as Warmworks plan to retrofit over 20,000 homes and create 2,500 jobs – a model that could be replicated across the country, delivering jobs to every corner of the UK.


Role of local authorities

Local government needs long-term funding certainty to enable councils to deliver comprehensive area-based programmes and build up local supply chains. With gas price rises leaving many families struggling to pay their energy bills, a fabric first approach that looks to reduce energy demand through improving the structure of houses – particularly insulation – will leave fewer families having to choose between heating and eating. The Clean Heat Grant is a welcome start, though it does not help those living in energy-inefficient homes that are not heat-pump ready.

While the government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation fund and local authority delivery schemes have allowed councils to start retrofitting homes for those on low incomes, the Heat and Buildings Strategy does not provide the long-term funding certainty that would enable the build-up of local supply chains. £3.9bn will only reach a small fraction of the homes that must be made more energy efficient. Without this, retrofitting cannot be delivered at scale.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy also does not address the private rented sector, which accounts for more than a third of those in fuel poverty. There is no new detail on implementing new regulations for Energy Performance Certificate standard ‘C’ rating by 2028 and no new powers for councils to make landlords comply.

Other incentives and regulations are needed to encourage all homeowners and landlords to retrofit their properties. These include green mortgages, a retrofitting grant, a fiscally neutral and variable Stamp Duty Land Tax for more efficient homes, and loan and low-cost finance initiatives. It will also be necessary to reform the planning system and building regulations to enable local authorities to mandate installation of energy efficiency measures, backed by adequate funding for building control officers.

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The Heat and Buildings Strategy is a welcome first step, but unfortunately it has not set out a clear long-term plan for incentives and regulation to boost demand for home energy retrofitting and low-carbon heat, and that is a missed opportunity.

Find out more about Ashden’s work at ashden.org

Read the government’s Heat and Building Strategy at bit.ly/HeatBuildingStrategy

Image credit | iStock | Getty

 

 

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