A home shouldn’t cost the earth

Alex Cunningham MP is Shadow Housing Minister and Labour MP for Stockton North. He tweets at @ACunninghamMP. Here, Alex sets out how a Labour Government can address both the house crisis and the climate crisis by delivering well insulated, low-carbon homes for the many.

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We are in the midst of a housing crisis. People are being priced out of the private rented sector, levels of rough sleeping are still outrageously high, the chances of home ownership seem to be coming more and more unrealistic for young people, and there is a dangerous lack of social housing.

So we need to build homes but we cannot cut corners and compromise on quality as we build a new generation of affordable and social housing that meet the highest environmental and energy standards that people can afford to live in.

It also means we must have bold plans to upgrade existing homes across all tenures to make them as energy efficient as possible and drive down costs particularly for households in fuel poverty.  

Standards of house building should be higher than they ever were. Since 2010, the Conservative Government and the Coalition one before, have watered down environmental standards for new build homes and axed the programme Labour agreed with the housebuilding industry for all new build homes to be ‘zero carbon’ from 2016.

If those standards, hadn’t been dropped, each new home owner could have saved £600 on their energy bills to date and, unless they are retro-fitted, will cost them £200 extra a year.

By contrast, as well as ensuring new build homes are built to a zero-carbon home standard as soon as possible, Labour wants to prioritise affordable homes in a new zero carbon homes programme.

We should be ambitious in raising the standards of the homes that people live in and if the housebuilding organisations I speak with are anything to go by, they are just wanting clear instructions from government about the standards they need to meet, and they will get on with it.

The fact we’ve seen government delay after delay in bringing forward new appropriate building regulations does a disservice to everyone in the sector but particularly to the people who will live in the new homes built.  

Getting the fabric of the homes we build right and reducing space heating requirement is a first step in the quality challenge. We must demand the highest possible standards of construction for houses made of the most efficient materials not just to contain energy bills – but to harness the power of new technologies, which can all but remove households’ dependency on the national grids. Looking towards these technologies is critical with solar panels, ground and air source heat pumps among others becoming the norm, not a novelty.

But if we are to convince people that they can generate their own power, we must highlight the benefits as we move away from traditional, older sources of powering and heating the home that people have become accustomed to.

We also need to take the people with us as we look to new methods of construction – including the unconventional.

Since I’ve been a Shadow Housing Minister, most organisations – from builders to housing associations, trade unions to local authorities – who have an interest in house building and construction, have raised the issue of modular housing.

The speed at which these homes can be built, the relatively low cost, and versatility are just three reasons why these could be an option for widespread house building here in the UK.

I’m told that because of these new methods of construction and the ability to create draught free, dry homes in the factory can also drive energy efficiency and comfort levels but we need to convince people.

Whilst I recognise there is still a major job still to be done in existing social housing, it is the private rented sector where we find the most inadequate heating and insultation. There are over 3 million homes in England within the private rented sector that are below EPC band C and over 250,000 are the least efficient F/G EPC bands.

Not only that, but 42% of the occupants of these least efficient privately rented homes live in fuel poverty and find it often impossible to keep them warm and free from damp.

There has been some limited recent progress. Recent amendments to the domestic private rented sector regulations introduced a requirement for private landlords to contribute £3,500 towards energy efficiency improvements in the least efficient rented homes.

Whilst this was a higher investment than the UK government originally proposed, only 48% of F and G-rated properties covered by the regulations are expected to reach Band E. This means that the cost of heating falls on the tenant, whilst some landlords get away with not ensuring their property is fit for renting out.

Sadly, the scheme is failing, and little is being done about it.

The Committee on Fuel Poverty has recently found that current enforcement levels for the scheme in England are very low, and that Local Authorities do not have access to accurate data that is necessary for efficient enforcement.

The committee concluded that a nationwide landlord register for England is the only means by which properties can be systematically identified and bad landlords in particular can be tackled. I agree.

But even if they knew who to target to drive improvements, local authorities must have the resource to be able to inspect and enforce the law and look after the interests of private renters who have seen their monthly expenditure on rent continually increase over the years with nothing to show for it.  

But it isn’t just private rented properties that are an issue – there are millions more.  Real decisive action is needed if we are to deal with the issues. 

That is why Labour will upgrade 4 million homes to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band C in our first term, investing £2.3bn per year to provide financial support for these households to insulate their homes.

The take up and delivery of insulation schemes will be driven by local authorities working street to street – addressing one of the main reasons for the UK’s poor record on insulation to date - an over-reliance on energy companies and market mechanisms to encourage households to insulate their properties.

I well remember the first Warm Zones set up around 2000 by the last Labour government.  I was a member of Stockton Borough Council and we seized on an opportunity from my then employer Transco (now National Grid) to sponsor the first Warm Zone in the country.

It’s door to door approach offering loft and cavity wall insulation, resulted in some 17,000 households being lifted out of fuel poverty but also addressed health and other issues. It was replicated across the country and needs to be again.

Improved energy efficiency in buildings since 2004 has strengthened UK energy security, reduced energy supply infrastructure costs, and now saves the typical dual fuel household over £500 per year.  But despite these massive benefits, there has been a huge drop in energy efficiency measures, mainly due to a 47% drop in the annual level of investment.

There has been a 95% reduction in the number of insulation measures installed in homes per year between 2012 and 2017. This is the result of the UK government cutting the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) in half and abandoning Labour’s flagship energy efficiency programme, Warm Front.

Households are paying between £30 and £35 a year towards Eco programmes.  I want us to drive greater value from this cash – take it directly from the energy companies and use local authorities to deliver the programmes where they know best what needs to be done.

Labour will also provide funding to support councils and housing associations to build new homes to Passivhaus standards.

We will tighten regulation of privately rented homes, blocking poorly insulated homes from being rented out and introduce new legal minimum standards to ensure properties are fit for human habitation and empower tenants to act on sub-standard homes.

Addressing the problems in housing and energy will have a positive impact on other sectors.

As well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and building the energy efficient homes our people can afford to live in,  we would be putting more money back into the pockets of renters that are saved from energy bills, we’d improve the health and wellbeing of families by not forcing them to choose between ‘heating and eating and we could finally make fuel poverty an issue of the past.

Alex Cunningham, Labour MP for Stockton and Shadow Housing Minister

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