Home insulation must be top priority to tackle climate emergency

Strengthen Green Homes Grant scheme by bringing it under public control, trade union leaders urge chancellor

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The government must strengthen the Green Homes Grant and bring it under public control, or else risk failing to meet vital and legally-binding carbon targets to tackle the climate emergency, Unite and other trade unions have warned.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent organisation which advises the government on climate change, has highlighted how the Green Homes Grant — a scheme which offers homeowners or landlords up to £10,000 to insulate their homes – is at risk of being scrapped in the upcoming budget on March 3.

The Green Homes Grant was initially established to kick-start a green recovery, with £1.5bn set aside for a period of six months. But with only one month left to go, only £109m has been spent so far. Now, it is understood that chancellor Rishi Sunak is considering withdrawing £1bn scheme and putting it back into the Treasury instead ring-fencing the funding to continue the scheme.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department has blamed the underspend of the scheme on the Covid crisis, saying that the pandemic has made people wary of allowing tradespeople to enter their homes. The government has also cited a general lack of interest from the public.

But trade union leaders, including Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, have pointed out in a joint letter to the chancellor that the scheme has in fact been very popular – official figures show that over 103,000 vouchers for the Grant have been applied for, but only around a fifth of these have been issued.

The American firm ICF contracted to run the scheme is to blame, in yet another instance of the failure of outsourcing and privatisation, the trade union leaders wrote in their letter.

They pointed out that ICF has further bungled its management of the contract by ripping off insulation contractors – of the 2,777 energy efficiency measures that have been installed, businesses have received payment so far for less than a third of these, causing serious cash flow problems and worker layoffs.

“The obvious answer to administrative problems is to strengthen the Green Homes Grants scheme by bringing it under public sector management and using the experience and knowledge of local authorities,” the letter read.

“Instead, the rug is apparently to be pulled from under the scheme, withdrawing around £1 billion in funding. This backtracking would call into question whether this government has any real commitment to a green recovery.”

“In the face of the damaging impacts of the Covid pandemic on the UK economy and employment, trade unions have called for serious public investment in our infrastructure: a strategy to secure decent jobs and avoid further damage to the UK’s economy while also putting the UK on a credible footing to meet its own climate commitments,” the letter continued.

The trade union leaders noted that UK homes are poorly insulated compared to other developed countries, which contributes to significant fuel poverty and tens of thousands of cold-related deaths each year.

“Funding withdrawal saw installation of energy efficiency measures collapse by 80% in the past decade, with widespread job losses,” the letter highlighted. “A quarter of the UK’s energy goes on heating and hot water for our homes, and the Committee on Climate Change has urged HM Treasury to make retrofitting homes an infrastructure priority.”

CCC chief executive Chris Stark said that it was absolutely vital that insulating UK homes becomes a top priority for the government.

“There’s no escaping the fact that the UK won’t hit its legally binding climate change targets unless buildings are much better insulated and low-carbon heat systems are installed,” he told the BBC.

Commenting, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said, “The UK has some of the poorest housing stock in western Europe and ‘fuel poverty’ is rampant – so the need for a comprehensive housing renovation programme – with the ‘green’ agenda at its heart – is desperately required.

“The current failings in the Green Homes Grants scheme has been abetted by awarding the contract to a US firm, when, during the pandemic, it is the public sector that has more than proved its worth as the standard bearer of delivering services in a timely fashion,” she added. “This contract should be brought back under public sector control immediately.”

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