The UK’s drafty Victorian housing stock contributes to fuel poverty and the ill health of the nation but it could be insulated using local government pension funds, says Bill Randall
A chilling legacy
UK cities have severe problems with their Victorian gas guzzlers - row after row and terrace after terrace of solid wall, pre-1919 homes that dominate much of our inner-city landscape.
Badly built in many cases, these houses and flats are hard to heat, consume vast amounts of energy, exhale vast amounts of carbon dioxide and make a substantial contribution to the profits of the ‘big six’ energy companies which control more than 99 per cent of the UK energy market.
Furthermore, they have served ignobly in the cause of fuel poverty and contributed to the ill health of the nation. It really is time we all did more to deal with their domestic delinquency.
Brighton and Hove has particular problems on this front. Almost 40 per cent of the city’s housing was built before 1919, compared with a national average of 25 per cent. Private rented housing, much of it neglected, makes up about 25 per cent of the city’s housing stock, almost twice the national average. Housing accounts for 42 per cent of the city’s CO2 emissions, compared with 27 per cent nationally.
Fortunately, a small army of enthusiastic green organisations is working in partnership to make the city’s older housing more energy efficient. Their number includes Brighton and Hove 10:10, the Brighton Energy Co-op, the Low Carbon Trust and the Brighton and Hove Peace and Environment Centre, which between them recently raised £242,000 from the government’s local energy assessment fund. They have now reached the last 30 groups bidding for the Big Lottery community living sustainably fund, which will award £1 million to each of 10 projects in June to help them tackle climate change.
In just eight weeks the Brighton group spent the LEAF money on 175 whole-house energy-efficiency surveys, which were carried out on a wide range of house types by the Green Building Partnership, a newly formed local co-op of contractors and suppliers specialising in eco-refurbishment. In addition, 400 households were given energy-efficiency packs that included energy meters, draft proofing and radiator boosters. A community energy-buying club was set up to help residents keep energy costs down through bulk buying.
The work also included a study of a terrace of 20 Victorian houses to explore how solid wall insulation can be applied externally to produce energy-efficiency improvements on a whole-street model while achieving significant economies of scale. The houses are small and external wall insulation is a practical option because internal wall work would reduce living space. The project has community buy-in. A highly active local group, Hanover for Sustainable Living, supports the work, which was carried out by BBM Architects and environmental management consultancy Phlorum.
While many case studies have demonstrated the benefits of retrofit on one or two houses, more research is needed on larger-scale projects, not least because the UK must retrofit its housing stock at a rate of 500,000 homes a year, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, for the best part of 40 years to meet the national target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Penny packets of one or two houses will not do the trick.
Energy modelling demonstrates external wall insulation is the single most effective improvement. Combined with internal basement insulation, loft insulation and window insulation it can achieve CO2 reductions of between 45 per cent and 60 per cent and cut fuel bills by as much as 50 per cent.
However, planning complications can arise, particularly in conservation areas where planners must be satisfied that any work will not materially affect the street scene. Finding a balance between conservation needs and the need to reduce the carbon footprint is critical. I’m all in favour of a handsome street scene, but there is the small matter of the planet’s future to consider as well.
Planning approval will be needed for a whole-street approach, and a legally binding agreement will be needed to ensure that homeowners and private landlords complete their own part of a street retrofit project. You don’t have to be Mystic Meg to foresee problems with some private landlords, whose only concern is collecting the rent and who show little interest in the state of their properties or the welfare of their tenants.
Footing the bill
Paying for the work is another issue. The detailed estimated cost of the energy-efficiency improvements of each of the 20 houses ranges from £16,290 to £23,300. The cost of external wall, loft and basement insulation is included for every house. Some estimates include door and window replacements and others modification of boiler flues and loosening and refixing TV cables while the external work is carried out.
So I’m afraid we come back to money, yet again. A combination of government grants and soft bank loans will be needed, if the 500,000 homes a year target is to be met.
The arguments for making money available are overwhelming: reduced CO2 emissions and fuel bills, an assault on fuel poverty and inequality, job creation and a healthier nation.
And here’s a way the money could be raised. Local government pension fund investments total more than £150 billion. Reinvesting 10 per cent of the total in soft loans for a nationwide retrofit programme is a safe investment and more ethical than investing the money in tobacco and arms. Public service pension funds are used for the public good in the US and Canada. We should follow suit.
Bill Randall is a Green Party councillor, leader of Brighton & Hove Council, and a housing journalist