Cold homes kill people – and the planet. It’s time for an upgrade
With the government set to announce an ambitious new pledge to cut carbon emissions this week, we must see strategic action in improving our homes as part of its long-term plans.
In this blog, David Orr, Chair of the Good Home Inquiry, explains why bringing our homes up to scratch is so important if we are to meet our climate goals and why the Green Homes Grant was a missed opportunity.
Did you apply for a Green Homes Grant from the government? No? You’re not alone. Despite the fact that England has overall the oldest and poorest quality homes in Western Europe, the one government sponsored scheme to help us to improve the quality of our homes has recently been closed down, earlier than planned. In its short life, the Green Homes Grant had very little impact. Some homes are now more energy efficient than they were but our homes are still responsible for 30% energy consumption and 20% of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. We still have millions of homes that are hard and expensive to heat. In 2018 around 17,000 people died because their homes were so cold and damp.
A Green Homes Grant should have been a key part of the answer. It could have led to more of us living comfortably and affordably in our newly warm homes. It could have led the charge on decarbonising our homes, helping us to meet our international obligations to stop global warming. And for a nation that says it wants to be a world leader in creating a low carbon economy, and which is Chairing COP26, the global conference on climate change, it could have shown real international leadership.
And yet it failed. Once again, something primarily designed as a short-term fix proved to be an unhelpful distraction. Instead of a proper long-term strategy, we had a fleeting, eye-catching initiative. It wasn’t properly thought through and as a result it achieved none of its goals. The Good Home Inquiry is exploring the state of our existing homes. It’s a depressing picture. There is basic minimum standard defined by government, known as the Decent Homes Standard. Over 4 million of our homes fail to meet even this basic minimum.
Instead of a proper long-term strategy, we had a fleeting, eye-catching initiative.
So, we have been asking people what they think about their homes. In recent polling carried out by Ipsos MORI, we have discovered that two in three of us think we need to make significant improvements to our homes over the next two years. As we get older, we want to make our homes more accessible, safer and easier to heat. We want to make our homes better.
But most of us won’t do any of these things. For half of us, the biggest barrier is the cost – the actual cost or our anxiety about what it will be. We need much better access to advice. Who can provide us with good information on the fabric and quality of our homes? We have to get our cars independently checked regularly. There is no similar system for our homes. And even when we know what needs to change, how do we find a contractor? How do we know that they will be trustworthy and do the job well? Will it cost more than the quote?
All this matters, not just to us as individual households but to the nation. Cold homes, accidents and falls at home, kill people. Poor-quality homes cost the NHS billions as well as adding to the pressure on that overstretched service. We cannot meet our international climate change obligations without making our homes more energy efficient.
And there is an enormous national opportunity here. We could create up to half a million new jobs in the economy if we invested more in making our homes healthy, safe places to live. We could see tens of thousands of new apprenticeships for young people (and older people) struggling in the COVID-19 economy. We could deliver huge reductions in demands on the NHS.
We all have an individual role to play. Most of us will pay for these changes ourselves because they will improve the quality of our lives. But government has a critical role to play. Not by coming up with yet another short-term, half baked initiative but by understanding that this requires long-term, properly strategic leadership. Grants will help, as would subsidised loans, as happens in many countries around the world. But most of all, if we are to ‘level up’, to create the vibrant economy and country we aspire to, we need a clear, coherent strategy for renewal. We did it after the war. We can, and must, do it now.