Antoinette Sandbach is a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee 2015-2017, and is MP for Eddisbury.
Last year, unnecessary winter deaths topped 50,000 – and more than 15,000 of these are directly relatable to a cold home.
This figure is shameful, and represents a huge amount of suffering. It is also clearly avoidable. There can be no justification for cold homes in the UK, blighting the lives of the neediest in society and leading to knock-on effects that spread through the economy – from lost working days to hospital visits and tumbling morale.
Before fingers start to be pointed, we must be clear: this figure is not due to rising energy bills, which, on average, have fallen over the past decade. They are also declining as a percentage of household income, the latest Ofgem data shows, as energy-hungry appliances are replaced with low-power alternatives and inefficient gas boilers are upgraded to the latest technology.
But while our TVs, computers and fridges are costing less to run, we still waste a huge amount of energy from UK homes in the form of heat. This is one of the largest open goals in UK politics: the lack of measures to insulate our homes and slash how much energy is wasted from leaky windows and poorly insulated walls and roofs.
Since 2008, the Government has logged the energy efficiency of UK homes as they have been sold or built; a register of 16 million homes that cover close to 1.5 billion square meters of British soil. They make for unpleasant reading. Upwards of 11 million of these miss the EPC C rating, which should be the bare minimum for any home.
This isn’t just a problem with older homes, in 2017, the largest entry on the register was band D properties, while more than 1.1 million properties are F- or G-rated, from which heat will be pouring out. Unquestionably, the homes of the poorest are likely to be the least-well insulated.
In addition to costing more to run, wasting so much heat requires us to import more gas from overseas, as well as unnecessarily adding to national carbon emissions. Imagine another aspect of life that was this wasteful. Cars that had not improved fuel efficiency in years, or businesses choosing not to boost competitiveness by reducing energy costs. It just doesn’t make sense.
Poorly insulated homes are also not fit for the future, something that Government is more than aware of. The Clean Growth Strategy aims to upgrade as many homes as possible to EPC grade C by 2035, but, unfortunately, is light on detail about how we get there.
Luckily, enthusiasm on both benches should help them decide. Building on recently-passed legislation that will ensure rented homes are warmer, cheaper and more pleasant to live in, a bill is working its way through the house on the potential for technology to boost energy efficiency. UK companies are among the market leaders in developing low-carbon tech, including on innovative efficiency kit, but without a route to market many of them will continue to rely on sales overseas.
A much-needed inquiry from the BEIS committee into energy waste will inject expert opinion into the debate, throwing forward a host of policies that can help us slash energy waste across the nation.
Legislation to ensure that new homes are built to the highest possible standards must, surely, make sense. Opposition from the housebuilding oligopoly needs to be shouted down, with developers forced to build high quality homes that will be cheap to run for decades to come.
The failure of the last wide-reaching piece of efficiency legislation – the Coalition-introduced Green Deal – should not dissuade ministers from acting in this space. It won’t be difficult to get this right – ensuring that new homes are built to the highest standards and that homeowners are incentivised to upgrade windows and insulate lofts.
After all, less money spent on heating leaves more to pump into the economy; research has shown that every pound invested in energy efficiency will boost GDP by £3.20 as the country is left with more disposable income to spend on household bills, new clothes or weekends away.
Other countries manage to insulate their homes far better than we do; it is not right that Britain should fall behind on such a simple act. If we get this right – and there is no reason why we should not – morbid headlines about winter deaths will rightly become a thing of the past and we as a nation will be able to take pride in all of society living in high quality homes.