Melting into a puddle in a boiling hot office, it’s easy to forget the winter, and the fact that every year thousands of people die from living in cold homes. But they do, and it’s a national scandal. Millions more can’t afford to keep their homes warm, and suffer not only from the cold, but from the myriad physical and mental health problems that fuel poverty brings. Those who can afford it waste hundreds of pounds a year on heating, money which is – almost literally – leaking out of our draughty roofs, walls, and windows.
There is a solution, and it isn’t rocket science. A major, publicly-funded energy efficiency programme to insulate every home in the country would save the average household £300 on their energy bill and bring millions out of fuel poverty. It would also significantly increase energy security, and help us to hit the carbon emissions reduction targets set in the Climate Change Act, Labour’s most important environmental achievement in its last term of office.
So, why aren’t we getting on with it? The usual answer is “it’s expensive!”. On the one hand, that’s true – a really effective scheme would need a secure funding stream of about £4bn per year until 2025. But on the other hand, on closer examination, it isn’t. A long-term, large-scale insulation programme would bring major, long-term, financial benefits which would pay back the initial investment. It would do, in spades, everything Infrastructure UK says major investment is meant to, and which the country needs so badly: strengthen the economy, create jobs, and increase living standards.
On the jobs front, a major insulation scheme would create about 100,000 of them, distributed all over the country. On the economy, modelling shows that the benefits of such a scheme would outweigh those of almost any other kind of government investment. It would also bring money straight back to the treasury – the German KfW Bank’s energy efficiency scheme is estimated to have brought in €3-4 in Treasury income for every €1 invested. The effects of warmer homes on living standards are obvious, and lead to major NHS savings – the Chief Medical Officer has said that every £1 spent on energy efficiency would bring about 40p back to the NHS.
Energy efficiency is a win-win-win, bringing multiple benefits across the UK. And that £4bn a year doesn’t look nearly so huge in the context of a government infrastructure pipeline worth about £100bn just to 2020. Yet, rather than being top of the list as it should be, energy efficiency for existing homes has had hardly a mention in the Infrastructure Bill currently going through Parliament. It isn’t big and shiny, and doesn’t make opportunities for minister photo-calls in hard hats and hi-viz. But what better candidate for investment than the very fabric of our lives, the homes we live in?
Everyone should have the right – and the opportunity – to live in a warm home. The current government’s policies on fuel poverty have been an embarrassing failure. We desperately need a government which takes fuel poverty seriously, and a Treasury which focusses not on short-term budgets, or flagship, show-off projects, but on investments that will bring real, long-term savings across the economy, and improve the lives of those on the lowest incomes. Making energy efficiency the UK’s top infrastructure priority would go a long way towards achieving that.