A one-time senior government adviser exhorted Britons this week to turn their thermostats down to show Vladimir Putin that our moral fibre had not been “rotted by liberalism”.
Adair Turner was arguing that the UK needed to be willing to make sacrifices to reduce its dependence on Russian-produced fossil fuels, amid fears that the Kremlin could cut off supplies to Europe altogether.
But his advice will have been little help to Les*, a handyman and gardener who winces when I broach the subject of energy bills with him.
Last year, he tells me, his landlady installed electric night storage heaters in his draughty, off-gas grid rural home. “Which would be great – if I could afford to turn them on.” Les’s monthly electricity bill is now £110, which he says is a “scary” proportion of his income. He also worries the new heaters will be used as an excuse to put his rent up.
“I try not to think about it all,” he says. “I don’t often have sleepless nights but over this…” He tails off, then seems to want to reassure me. “Two duvets keep you quite warm.”
After a decade of market-driven policy failure, Britain remains the ‘cold man of Europe’, with homes that are older, leakier, draughtier, and thus harder and more costly to heat, than anywhere else in western Europe.
Around 80% of our energy bills go on heating our homes, mostly on space rather than water heating.
And exhortations to make “sacrifices” won’t fix the fact that, from April, the average British household will face fuel bills equivalent to £2,000 a year, with that figure predicted to rise by 50% again in the autumn. Next month’s rise will plunge a quarter of English households into fuel poverty – defined by the charity National Energy Action as being unable to power your home adequately without falling below the official poverty level.
Like Les, Laura – who has asked us not to publish her surname – and her three kids have also spent a fair chunk of this winter “wrapped up in layers, sat in bed with the quilt wrapped around us to keep warm”.
The family’s income fell drastically when Laura’s partner had to take sick leave with two successive bouts of COVID. In the past year or so, the amount she has to put into her gas and electricity prepayment meters every week has jumped from £15 to more than £35 on each.
She tells me: “I’ve gone a couple of days without anything to eat so I can make sure my children can eat.”
Laura’s Sheffield home hasn’t had any energy efficiency improvements in the ten years she’s been there, and she says it’s noticeably cold downstairs, even when the heating is on. A year ago, she asked her housing association for help with simple measures, such as improving the draughty doors, but hasn’t heard back.
“It’s a nightmare,” she says. “You’re stuck in a corner and there’s no way out. I cry most nights.”
How did we get here?
The last time soaring bills were in the headlines it was 2013. Back then, responding to lobbying from the Right and energy companies, prime minister David Cameron’s solution was to “cut the green crap”. In other words, he scrapped and watered down the obligations on suppliers and government over energy efficiency and renewable measures, a move that was (supposedly) meant to cut bills in the short term.
As a result, the uptake of basic but effective energy efficiency measures, like loft and cavity wall installation, which had been rising steadily up to 2012, plummeted by 90% that year, and has stayed pathetically low ever since. Such measures have been found to reduce energy bills by a fifth. But nearly a decade later, over half of English lofts still have either no loft insulation at all, or far less than the current recommended level, according to official figures published last summer. The slashing of these energy efficiency schemes has cost nine million households an average of £170 a year, according to recent analysis by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
Yet Boris Johnson is now being lobbied with the same messages as Cameron was. Lord Frost, a Cabinet Office minister, campaigns against the “green” and “woke” agenda in the Daily Mail and The Sun, blaming it for the problems of “hard-pressed people” seeing their energy bills rising. Nigel Farage tells the Daily Mail that plans to decarbonise homes and transport will see the elderly “die colder, poorer and sooner”.
Commentators queue up to tell us that the UK’s problem is an “addiction to Russian oil and gas”, and the Tory Right solution is to allow British oil and gas companies to frack and drill more fossil fuels. But that’s like saying an alcoholic’s problem is an addiction to Stolichniya vodka, solved by switching to Beefeater gin.
It’s not people like Les and Laura, huddled under duvets and feeling anxious every time a switch goes on, who are ‘addicted’ to fossil fuels, Russian or otherwise. It’s the government that’s addicted, to failed market-driven solutions to energy needs and to insulating big energy’s profits, rather than ordinary people’s homes.
As the Committee on Climate Change said in 2019, given the failure of market-driven schemes and “the scale of the challenge”, improving the energy efficiency of existing homes “must be viewed and supported by the Treasury as a national infrastructure priority”.
It doesn’t even have to be astronomically expensive, in the general scheme of things. In 2018, Nick Eyre, a professor of energy and climate policy at Oxford University, and others set out how UK homes could save 25% of the energy they use with an investment of just £7.5bn (a third of the cost of building one new nuclear power station), with additional benefits worth up to £47bn.
How can we fix it?
Public funding for street-by-street home improvement schemes, tailored to people’s needs and delivered by councils and trusted local organisations, is favoured by energy justice organisations.
Such a programme would also avoid putting the onus on households to sort out their own insulation – something that can be prohibitively complex because of the differing policies and eligibility requirements of different companies and agencies.
It would create economies of scale.
And it would avoid the mistrust felt by many households (and indeed tradespeople) about programmes overseen by the private sector or sold by people going door-to-door. For example, some people have had unsuitable wall installation work done, causing significant damp problems, by unscrupulous firms taking advantage of confusion about who was administering the scheme.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is coming under increasing pressure to use his forthcoming Spring Statement to increase the immediate financial support on offer to households – and there’s no doubt this is needed. Laura was referred to a charity supported by the national grid, but the fuel meter vouchers she received lasted just a couple of weeks. And Les’s electricity supplier recently told him recently he was too late to get a bill rebate under this year’s Warm Homes scheme and he’d have to wait till the autumn.
But will the government shift from its position, set out in the 2020 Energy White Paper, that investment in improving the energy efficiency of our buildings “must come principally” from private sources such as businesses, homeowners and landlords?
Conservative prime ministers are fond of invoking the 1940s spirit of post-war reconstruction when talking about the scale of their climate ambitions.
But Britain wasn’t rebuilt by making ordinary people scramble for scraps from the market – and we won’t see off Putin like that, either.
*Name has been changed
Teaser photo credit: Cross-section of home insulation. By ‘Matthew G. Bisanz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7977520