Cold couple sitting on floor next to radiator

Doing the Right thing

Robin McAlpine – 26th May 2022

It’s a scunner is it not? – doing the right thing is often harder and the easiest thing to do is not the best thing to do. When it comes to decarbonising Scotland that is the perfect description of the situation we find ourselves in with our buildings.

And guess what? We’re doing the wrong thing, because it’s easier.

So what’s the issue? Well, much as Common Weal goes on about Scotland being in an incredibly privileged position when it comes to decarbonisation because of our land and our energy resources (and we really are), housing offsets that, for three simple reasons.

First, Scotland is cold. Second, we’re very particularly reliant on natural gas for heating (more than any other European country). And third, we have allowed decades of poor-quality housebuilding since the Thatcher revolution converted housing from being effectively a public utility into being a speculative game.

So we have draughty houses in a cold climate with an almost total reliance on gas heating. We would be best to go back to the 1970s and increase our building standards like Germany, Austria and the Nordic countries did. But we are where we are so we need to start to face up to this.

Why does it offset so many of our national benefits? It’s for a simple reason – it’s fiddly to fix. That may not be a technical description but it is accurate. If you want to rip out a boiler and put something else in, that’s what you do – the cost is largely in the capital, the machinery. If you need to increase renewable power you put in big wind turbines or solar arrays.

But fixing heat-leaking housing is a detailed and time-consuming job and there are no shortcuts. In fact, until you begin doing it you don’t even know what you’re doing. If you ask the experts in this field they will tell you that until you start removing plasterboard (or old lathe-and-plaster) to see what’s underneath, you don’t even know what you’re dealing with.

So it’s labour-intensive, it takes time and it still manages to require a reasonable range of materials to be able to do it so it costs. And it really does. We will soon be publishing a report which gives an indication of the costs that are being passed onto households on the quiet by existing policy and they will make your eyes water.

But here’s the thing – if you build energy generation capacity then you pass that cost on to people via electricity bills. That is not the case with housing retrofit, because there is very little profit to be made. In the past environmentalists argued that it would pay for itself by reducing energy bills but this wasn’t really honest – the reduction in bills wouldn’t repay the cost even over a lifetime.

And that is precisely why Scotland is currently taking shortcuts, shortcuts we’ll come to regret. The most obvious is that instead of looking at the thermal performance of a house, public policy is instead pushing renewable heating. This is simply because there is profit to be made from a new heating system.

But it is sheer madness to replace a heating system in a house which on average is leaking about 40 per cent of that heat straight out of the roof and through the gaps. And it is even more ridiculous to do it if you’re trying to do it with Air Source Heat Pumps, because they just don’t do what people think they do. Sure they’ll heat an inefficient house in the winter if you want them to, but only by burning through more cost in electricity than it would cost to have an expensive oil boiler.

Air Source Heat Pumps are just about feasible in a house that requires a low heating load (which is what they provide) but not in a house that is looking for a like-for-like replacement for a gas boiler which is often running at full tilt.

Yet that is where we are – we’re encouraging people to put in an insufficient and pretty expensive heating system to compensate for the fact that their house is leaking heat hand over fist.

So what of an insulation programme? Here there are at least three problems with what we’re doing. The first is that policy is to improve insulation, but not by enough, at least not now. There are houses being adapted now which will have to be adapted again because they’re not being adapted enough in one go. Do it right or do it twice – and we’re doing it twice.

The second is that it is being done through a random, private-sector model. Houses get some grants so they choose to get renovated one at a time. This is horrendously inefficient – with this method a street of 20 houses will get 20 different companies to turn up on 20 different occasions and do the same things to each house, one at a time. It makes no sense.

Plus quality control on this work is poor-going-on-non-existent so there is a very substantial track record of retrofit work which is nowhere near performing as well as it is nominally supposed to be. As in ‘spent all the money and now the heat leaks out of the house in two hours rather than one’.

The third is that no-one would be doing this if it wasn’t for the grants and even then it still involves a fair bit of additional investment on the householder so this isn’t following need or strategy but wealth. That isn’t a sustainable way to fix things.

There is a different, better way to do this. Do it as a public works programme. Do it systematically. Pick a place at a time and do it all. Do it all linked to an industrial strategy and so, as we never tire of explaining, it pays for itself through increased economic activity. Do it right and it’s harder – but cheaper, and potentially self-financing.

Of course, it is the corporations who will make the money out of doing it wrong who have the ear of government and little sign that the public good is high up the agenda here. What is perhaps most depressing for many of us is that there is really is next to nothing in terms of difference between the Scottish Government’s approach and the Westminster Tories.

So to break the back of this issue, perhaps it is time we shifted this narrative round from the gloom to the sunshine. There is so much positive to say about this. We do this once – a house with high thermal performance is a house that will always have high thermal performance. It takes about 40 per cent of Scotland’s domestic carbon emissions straight out of the picture in one go.

It makes getting the heating systems right much easier. But above all, these houses become a joy to live in. I know someone who has always lived in a traditional Scottish house. They assumed that draughts and big heating bills and putting on extra jerseys and all of that was just ‘how it is’.

Then they visited a friend in a new house. The house was warm, had much lower heating bills, no draughts, no damp, no mould. That means none of the health impacts of cold, damp, mouldy houses – and that is significant. It improves school performance of children. It improves lives immeasurably. 

It is almost as if all the benefits of doing this properly remain unmentioned because to do so brings with it the ‘horrible’ issue of the bill for doing the work, a bill which is only the size it is because of the free-market ideology which underpins the whole approach being taken.

So let’s loop back to the beginning and start again. Isn’t is great how doing the right thing and doing it properly makes your life so much better, now and in the future? Isn’t it amazing that if you decide to do things right and plan your policy on that basis it turns out that there are better ways to do it than you thought there were? Isn’t it lovely that by being selfish and wanting a warm, cozy house, you also manage to save the world, almost by accident?

Throughout recent history we have had these moments, moments when major public works change everything – trains, roads, the National Grid, the sewage system, schools, the NHS. No-one talks about the costs any more, only the better world they left behind.

Now is the time to fight that fight all over again – for the future of your home.

(All the information and references in this article can be found in the Common Home Plan with more detail in a forthcoming paper on retrofit from Chris Morgan)

2 thoughts on “Doing the Right thing”

  1. Alisdair McKay

    It is still distressing that properties for sale will show the smart new kitchen and bathroom but make little if any mention of the insulation value. An exhibition many years ago in Inverness was lambasted as a flop, yet way back then it made it clear that insulation, insulation & insulation, are the three most important things in a house.

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