Hitting a brick wall
In this briefing note we consider how policy makers could square up to one of the hardest parts of the UK’s transition to a net zero economy: insulating the nation’s homes. Drawing on a new dataset that contains property-level efficiency information for two-thirds of England’s homes, we show that policy makers and the public have ignored the hardest parts of the net zero housing challenge to date: insulating walls. As a result, many assume that improving home efficiency is more straightforward than it is.
But the barriers to action are significant. Upgrading homes does not always make economic sense at least in the short term, and involves considerable disruption too. We conclude the only way to deliver progress commensurate with the scale of the net zero challenge is to get tough, regulating homeowners to make changes in their properties, but dealing with the distributional impacts by supporting households with lower means.
- We have largely focused on the low-hanging fruit when it comes to home insulation in the UK. As a result, policy makers continue to overlook the problem of the 9 million homes in England alone with walls that need significant upgrading.
- Homes with poorly insulated walls are ubiquitous, but there are also pockets of acute need. 64 per cent of homes in London, and more than 40 per cent in other core cities, have poor or very poor walls, for example. There is also a clear social gradient: four-in-ten (40 per cent) homes in the poorest neighbourhoods have inefficient walls, for example, compared to just over three-in-ten (32 per cent) in the richest of places.
- Households improving their walls from ‘very poor’ efficiency to ‘very good’ would not recover an average upfront cost of £8,000 through bill savings until 2040 under current energy price projections.
- 2.3 million households in the poorest income quintile do not receive support through the benefits system, and would miss out on current targeted support for home insulation. Conversely, six-in-ten (59 per cent) of households in the richest income quintile live in homes in council tax bands A to D, meaning there would be significant deadweight to any scheme allocated on that basis.
- The Government should look to the social care model for a financial assessment that integrates assets and incomes. Following this logic, setting an upper bound on assets of £250,000 would see half of homeowners cover all of their insulation costs, while the 10 per cent with assets of less than £100,000 and incomes below £30,000 per year would have all costs covered. For those in between, support would be provided on a sliding scale.
- Insulating homes would not overly burden the construction industry as a whole, adding just 2 per cent to annual working hours. But there are key practical and desk-based skills shortages that need to be addressed, especially in areas where the number of badly insulated homes is highest.
- Homeowners should be mandated to improve the energy efficiency of their properties by 2035. Penalties for non-compliance after this cut-off date should be introduced to ensure the whole stock of homes is upgraded.
- The Government should provide support for households with lower means with the full costs of upgrades, while those with assets and incomes above an upper bound should fully self-fund. The Government should look to the social care financial assessment as a model means test that integrates both income and assets.
- Local skills accelerators should be developed in areas where the workforce is limited and the number of homes that need insulating is high. This will ensure that, when deadlines pass and policy gets tough, local labour markets are capable of meeting high levels of demand.
For all research queries about this report, please contact Jonathan Marshall. For press queries, please contact the Resolution Foundation press office.