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EDITOR’S ARTICLE: Green backtrack from Sunak – reaction

  • 5 Oct 2023

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference was hot on the heels of his statement on the environment a couple of weeks ago. The main topic of his conference speech was the scrapping of the Birmingham to Manchester leg of the HS2 railway line, whilst his green speech featured cars, boilers and Net Zero, amongst other subjects.

A delay on a ban of new diesel and petrol vehicles to 2035, an exemption to phase out fossil fuel boilers by 2035 – pushing it back from 2026, an announcement of no new energy efficiency targets on homes, and a pledge to stick to the Net Zero 2050 target were all features.

Other inclusions, and perhaps some slightly more peculiar ones, included stopping people being forced to have ‘seven different bins’ in their homes and preventing people being ‘taxed for eating meat’. Perhaps the idea of these slightly more populist policies was to appeal to the masses ahead of next year’s general election; but to use something as serious as the environment as a political football to accrue favour is a very dangerous concept, in my opinion.

There has been a lot written by companies involved in construction on topics such as heat pumps, insulating homes and Building Regulations appertaining to energy in recent months and years, so I was keen to get various reactions across industry to the Prime Minister’s environment speech. This article shares some of these…

Insulating homes and disruptive delays

Allan Wilen, Glenigan’s Economics Director, comments: “The UK housing stock is amongst worst insulated in Europe. Improving the energy efficiency of the nation’s homes would help to cut household fuel bills as well as deliver environmental improvements, improving the UK’s energy security and creating skilled jobs in the UK construction industry.

“The private rented sector in particular has an abundance of poorly insulated homes. In contrast, the decision to release landlords from the obligation to upgrade homes to an adequate level of energy efficiency will continue to expose many renters to higher heating costs and damp and mouldy conditions alongside rapidly rising rents.

“The decision to delay the transition away from gas boilers towards heat pumps will again cause disruption and uncertainty for manufacturers and installers, deterring the necessary investment required to deliver the capacity and efficiency improvements needed to upgrade the UK housing stock and deliver the government’s Net Zero target.”

‘Disappointing’

Steve Richmond, Head of Marketing and Technical at REHAU Building Solutions, expressed his dismay: “Given the scale of the challenge we face to decarbonise heat, the Government’s latest policy announcement is disappointing. As a nation, we’re extremely dependent on fossil fuels for our heating, so we can’t afford to delay the adoption of low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps and district heating any longer.

“While 2026 has been accepted as too tight of a goal to ban the sale of new off-grid oil boilers, 2035 is a significant delay, and a 2028 or 2030 deadline might have proved more appropriate.

“It’s also worth noting that due to the new 80% rule, gas boilers will still be sold from 2035 onwards, which will only serve to slow the transition away from gas. The silver lining here is the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which has seen its grant increased from £5,000 up to £7,500. Incentivising the purchase of heat pumps will be key to driving uptake of this technology, and may help coax households away from buying new gas or oil boilers. However, a review of electricity price levies will also be necessary in order to address the so-called ‘spark gap’ which is currently hampering the rollout of heat pumps.”

‘Kick up the backside’

Nicolas Gillanders, CEO, South Coast Insulation Services (SCIS), was also less than impressed: “Upgrading the energy efficiency of UK homes can go a long way in the battle to reduce carbon emissions, cut on energy bills and improve occupant health. But the UK’s energy efficiency policies are holding us back. It is even more obvious that we are lagging behind when looking at the progress made by other countries across Europe like France and Germany. The UK needs a kick up the backside when it comes to its approach to energy efficiency – and it is policy that can provide this drive.

For more from Nicolas on the speech, which he described as a ‘major step-back’, click this link to an article on the Buildingtalk website.

‘No time to relax’

Melanie Waters, Managing Director, Trade-Up, was somewhat perplexed at the statement, commenting: “Rishi Sunak’s net zero statement revealed a relaxation of the phaseout target for the installation of gas boilers, alongside new exemptions. This is despite the latest industry figures revealing that the British public is increasingly rallying behind environmental progress, with record numbers of solar panels and heat pumps installed in the first half of 2023. 

“Government grants have been pivotal in allowing the British public to transition to heat pumps – and the increase in these grants from £5,000 to £7,500 will be valuable in helping to make sustainable heating systems a mainstream option. Now is not the time to pause – with huge progress already made, we need certainty about the future of net zero policies.

“The announcement begs the question – why is the Government relaxing its commitments now? The construction industry has already begun to invest heavily in green technologies and up-skilling talent. The push to make homes more energy efficient calls for around 52,000 additional workers across the UK home improvements and repairs sector by 2032, according to Checkatrade’s UK Trade Skills Index 2023.

“While no minor feat, this also presents a huge opportunity to up-skill the existing workforce, re-skill talent from other industries, and create attractive, rewarding and future-proof career options. “Net zero will be a significant driver of positive change, and we cannot achieve progress by taking one step forward and two steps back.”

‘Welcome the decision’

Russell Dean, Residential Product Group Director at Mitsubishi Electric, gave a more positive outlook, saying: “We welcome the government’s decision to increase the financial support available to households via the Boiler Upgrade Scheme to £7,500. This will help offset the cost of installing a heat pump for homeowners ahead of implementing the Future Homes Standard in 2025.”

To read more of Russell Dean’s thought on the speech, click here to view them on the Buildingtalk website.

Looking forward

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) comment: “RICS looks forward to the government providing an alternative solution to improve energy efficiency given its importance in not just tackling climate change, but economic and social well-being. The government should also use this time to undertake a much-needed reform of the EPC methodology to ensure we accurately assess and incentivise energy performance improvements.

“RICS welcomes the announcement of additional support for the boiler upgrade scheme; however, we reiterate the importance of a holistic strategy that promotes energy efficiency and decarbonisation that is not limited to energy products. As part of this approach, the new second edition of Whole Life Carbon Assessment for the Built Environment (WLCA) will prove a powerful tool for achieving net zero targets in the built environment sector both in the UK and globally.”

Editor’s summary

Of course, the economic climate currently isn’t a particularly great one, so perhaps some of these scaling back measures are necessary. However, a lot of time and effort has been put in by the construction industry towards creating a greener future, in various ways, so it is vital that these endeavours prove not to be in vain…

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