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No More Cold Homes – report on a debate at the Mechanics’ Institute

15th April 2014
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On 10 April, Manchester’s Mechanics’ Institute hosted the No More Cold Homes debate, which brought politicians and campaigners together to talk fuel poverty—an issue affecting millions of people across the country.

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About 80 people packed the Main Hall to quiz the panel, which featured Jonathan Reynolds, MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, and the Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies (who’d stepped in to replace committed fuel poverty campaigner Kate Green MP), alongside Ed Matthew from the Energy Bill Revolution campaign and Jennifer Gregory of Age Concern Manchester. And special thanks to Dave Coleman from the Carbon Literacy Project for expertly chairing the event.

In addition to being an ex-FOE campaigner, Ed Matthew is director of Transform UK, aiming ‘to accelerate investment into the low carbon economy’ and looking to protect the most vulnerable during our reduction of carbon emissions. He led the campaign which helped set up the Green Investment Bank. He went through all the usual figures and ‘no-brainer’ arguments: 31,000 excess winter deaths; the UK having Western Europe’s worst-insulated housing stock; it costing half as much to fix fuel poverty as a one-off cost (£3–4 billion) as we waste through bad insulation each year. Admittedly it might involve having to spend three or four years’ current expenditure on energy efficiency to fix the problem, but the worst-case scenario would be one-eighth the upfront cost of two nuclear power stations and one-twelfth that of controversial transport mega-project HS2. And the Germans find investing in energy efficiency brings revenue three or four times the cost outlay. And all three parties have already promised to abolish fuel poverty by 2016—back in 2000. So why is money from the carbon tax not invested back into energy efficiency?

Jennifer pointed out that old people, 1.7 million of whom can’t afford to heat their homes, tend to be asset-rich but cash-poor and so are in need of funding. However, £5.5 billion in means-tested benefits goes unclaimed each year in the UK—so why isn’t this being spent on fighting fuel poverty?

Now for the politicians. Chris said any improvements in energy efficiency should not need targets at national (or EU) level, as the benefits should be seen as so obvious in financial terms that no target should be required. Possible sources for funding include the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the UK carbon levy. In contrast to this approach, Jonathan maintained that energy efficiency is not window-dressing in energy policy; it has got to be addressed, and it’s a good way of tackling climate change. However, this need not be the main justification for investment—the jobs issue alone is reason enough. Also, the global energy situation makes it essential to address fuel poverty, given that the UK has very bad housing stock.

Questions started by looking at why the interest rates are biased against addressing fuel poverty and in favour of quantitative easing, and whether we need to look at promoting behavioural change by non-statutory measures (maybe the ‘nudge’ promoted by the Conservatives). Jonathan focused more on where Green Deal money should be spent (smart grids and improving boiler pump efficiency) than on making finance more accessible. Chris referred to the rise of UKIP and implied we can’t force behavioural change on people; we should ‘accommodate their wishes’ by technological improvements. Ed repeated the contrast with nuclear power (and the lesson drawn from Germany) and said we need a loan programme to look at retrofit, which should be rolled out street-by-street and house-by-house in priority areas.

Next, a question from Dan Roberts on Twitter: how is the Government going to meet climate change targets, with the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) being cut? Jonathan wouldn’t go into the detail of Labour’s policy on the ECO and said we need to invest in the hardest-to-treat homes. The Government’s cut in ECO funding for energy improvements was one of its ‘greatest single policy failures’ and Jonathan couldn’t see ‘how could they have got this so badly wrong’. Chris referred instead to closing coal-fired power stations reducing emissions, and the switch to gas driving prices up.

Private sector rented properties were the subject of the next question. Cllr Matt Strong (Labour) pointed out this sector has gone from 8% to 25% of all properties since the turn of the century. Jonathan referred to the F- and G-rated properties which have been identified as a major issue, and said the Government must be on target to upgrade these, or remove them from the market, by 2018. He has arranged a meeting with industry body ARLA to look at this. Problem areas include properties where there are multiple tenants: there may be communal areas and the benefit situation may vary from one tenant to another.

Of course, this links in to the research that MFOE carried out into whether estate agents show energy ratings on their adverts, and Dave asked the panel about this. Jonathan’s response was that, if Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) are not being displayed, this would have to be rectified by enforcement. EPCs aren’t perfect but they’re all we have; the Government has apparently been fined for failure to display an EPC on one of its own buildings. Chris didn’t seem to think this was a major issue, given the private rented sector is still at relatively small levels compared with the situation in some other European countries. Ed found it extraordinary that it has taken so long to take steps to remove the ‘unfit for human habitation’ F- and G-rated properties from the market. Other European countries bring this about by incentives and strong regulations.

Some local community microgeneration projects have got off the ground, and the Salford Low-Energy House and a tenants’ association in West Gorton upgrading its heating have shown what can be done in housing design. So what did the panel have to say about these approaches to the problem? Chris was worried that domestic heating might not be maintained to an acceptable standard, resulting in poor value for money. Ed was very much in favour of microgeneration—‘solar has just absolutely come down hugely’—and forecast that a lot of homes would be producing their own energy. He thought the debate had become too dominated by electioneering at the expense of those severely affected by fuel poverty, such as the old and young children.

In response to a question on who should be responsible for delivering the retrofit of homes from Emma Pinchbeck on Twitter, the panel agreed that standards need to be set by central government, but the implementation of improvements on the ground should be left to local authorities and NGOs.

The last question, crucial from the standpoint of translating this debate into political action, looked at when the Labour Party was going to commit itself to backing the Energy Bill Revolution and its demands. However, Jonathan wouldn’t provide further details on Labour policy, preferring to stress the benefits of a ‘No’ vote in the Scottish referendum for English energy users (in view of the massive renewables developments in Scotland). Likewise, Chris stressed the importance of energy security, repeating the questionable assertion about dependence on Russian gas. It was left to Ed to conclude the evening by proposing new approaches to the debate, emphasising that the Energy Bill Revolution is caling for carbon taxes to be ‘recycled’ to raise revenue for energy efficiency—thus circumventing the Treasury’s objections to hypothecation.

The debate concluded, therefore, more with defining what will need to be addressed in order to make progress than with any substantial commitments to do so.  But there’s still time to persuade politicians to act – you can write to your MP and ask them to back the campaign via the Energy Bill Revolution website