Richard Derrington was one of the first people to apply for a much-hyped government grant to decarbonise his home, a cottage in the Cotswolds, and help the UK meet its aim to be net zero by 2050.
His speed off the mark counted for little as he faced months of delays, bureaucracy and repeated requests to prove his identity. A year on from applying for the £5,000 green homes grant, Derrington finally had the satisfaction of seeing a new heat pump installed in his garden.
“I suppose we are one of the lucky ones,” he said. “God knows how many hours we and our supplier put in to get to where we are now. But the nightmare will stay with me forever.”
Derrington’s property was one of only 47,500 domestic buildings – out of a promised 600,000 – that were given one of the now-shelved grants to make them more energy-efficient. By the government’s calculations, that leaves 18,952,500 properties that still need to be made low carbon and low energy if the country has any hope of meeting that net zero goal.
“The green homes grant simply did not achieve what it was intended to do: spearhead uptake of domestic renewables, support confidence in the sector and provide a much-needed boost for installers,” said Ian Rippon, the chief executive of the renewable energy certification body MCS.
And it is not just that grant that has withered and died. Dan Bovill, a renewable energy installer who runs SolarTherm UK in Essex, remembers many of the ideas that have fallen by the wayside in the past 10 years, such as subsidies for the solar industry in the feed-in tariffs (FIT) scheme, which were promised, wavered on and then cut.
Some businesses spent an average of £87,000 getting set up for the green homes grants by gaining the necessary certifications, hiring staff and promoting the scheme, only to have to then cut staff because of the delays in issuing vouchers and making payments, according to evidence to MPs on the public accounts committee. “It is often the administration costs of setting up for these schemes which send small businesses under,” Bovill said.
The latest offer from the government, a boiler upgrade scheme to support the transition from gas boilers to heat pumps in buildings, will provide £5,000 grants to households up to a total of £450m, far less than the promised £1.5bn available for the green homes grants.
As the countdown begins to its start next spring, industry figures, campaigners and politicians are united about the need for this scheme and future projects to be long-term, properly funded, accountable and efficient.
“Given the colossal scale of the task in hand, the goalposts must stop moving and government policy in this area must be clear, stable and endure,” said Philip Dunne, the Conservative chair of the environmental audit committee. “Before the 2019 election, £9bn was committed to address energy efficiency measures. Current funding plans look certain to fall well short of this total.”
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change and net zero secretary, said: “Labour would launch a national mission to, within a decade, upgrade the 19m homes below decent standards of insulation. We would do it by investing £6bn a year in a house-by-house, street-by-street programme for insulation and zero-carbon energy. The programme would be led by local authorities to deliver warmer homers and lower energy bills.”
Elsewhere in Europe, attempts to decarbonise domestic properties are proceeding at a pace that homeowners such as Derrington can only dream about.
In France, the government launched a similar scheme to the green homes grant, also as part of a post-Covid green recovery. My Renovation Bonus (My Renovation Bonus) provided €75 per sq metre for insulation and €4,000 for a heat pump, comparable to the £5,000 given to UK households. The average response time to an application is 11-and-a-half days.
Jess Ralston, of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, an independent non-profit, said the French scheme was considered a success, with 190,000 applications submitted by the end of last year, and 380,000 by mid-2021.
In Germany, the Reconstruction Credit Institute (Reconstruction Credit Institute) scheme has been in place for 10 years and covers many aspects of retrofitting homes to make them energy efficient and less carbon dependent.
Ralston’s analysis shows that in 2019 the KfW had 326,000 applications, and the following year 600,000, driven by increased uptake in renewable heat and energy efficiency in new and existing buildings. She said Germany had successfully leveraged €83bn in private funding in 2020 towards its programmes.
Domestic buildings account for 19% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said the path to their decarbonisation must start with immediate action on insulation so that low-carbon heat systems will run efficiently.
It is a message echoed by activists from the direct action group Insulate Britain. “This is what our supporters, nine of whom are currently in prison, have been saying since mid-August,” said Liam Norton, a spokesperson for the group. “Why don’t they just get on with the job?”
A government spokesperson said: “We have taken the experience of the green homes grant into account when designing new measures, with a commitment to go further and faster by investing £6.6bn in improving the energy efficiency of our buildings, including £1.3bn this year alone to upgrade up to another 50,000 homes.”