Energy Security and Net Zero Committee is taking evidence on local authority efforts to support improved household energy efficiency as part of its wider “Heating our homes” enquiry.
Alongside the need for a tailored approach to rural homes, witnesses highlighted the issue of local authority funding.
LONDON, 16 January 2024 — Short-term competitive funding for local authorities is hampering energy efficiency efforts in rural communities, MPs at an Energy Security and Net Zero Committee hearing were told during the “Heating our homes” enquiry on Wednesday, 10 January.
The committee was hearing oral evidence from cross-sector stakeholders, including UK100 Co-president and leader of Wiltshire Council, Richard Clewer. UK100 is the UK’s only cross-party network for local leaders committed to ambitious climate action.
Testimony from Cllr Clewer reinforced the findings of UK100’s flagship Powers in Place report, namely, the call for an end to disjointed, short-term, competitive funding in favour of sustained, strategic support that allows proper investment in the planning, skills and supply chains necessary to deliver energy efficiency upgrades and energy bill savings for residents.
Asked about government support for local authority-led energy efficiency upgrades, Cllr Clewer said:
“If you look at the range of incentive schemes, some of the work around retrofitting social housing has been good, but the consistency of funding …, is a major headache. You have to have a scheme to retrofit the entirety of the housing stock. You cannot rely on piecemeal funding. It must be a long-term plan.
“When you come on to some of the incentives around private housing, they can work, but they take time to build up a head of steam … Look at Solar Together: okay, there is no real incentive there, but it uses communal buying to deliver a reduced price for solar panels and batteries. We have run it for two years. It has hit maybe one-half of a per cent of the housing stock each year. It is pretty small work given the timescales we need to work on for delivery.
“When you come on to the private rental sector, again we have had some funding from Government schemes, but you then have an awful lot of work to find landlords or tenants who qualify and who are willing to engage, so building up the steam on those schemes is very time-consuming. You also have no certainty that that funding will continue once you actually have something that is starting to deliver and provide these changes. I would say the incentives are really patchy, I am afraid.”
Coming less than a month after the Government released its updated National Planning Policy Framework, which garnered a lukewarm reception from climate organisations, Cllr Clewer also raised the issue of how a two-speed planning system is a major barrier to local authorities adopting higher sustainability standards for homes.
Cllr Clewer added:
“[Y]ou can try [to set higher standards], but an inspector can strike it down. A number of us are using a variant of [the Cornwall Council climate emergency development plan] model, and some have had it approved. Yet … There was a council in the north of England [Lancaster] using the same principle but had it rejected by an inspector. That in itself causes an issue there. The only absolute that we have is in areas where we are looking at significant regeneration … That lack of consistency is not good. The Government should instantly, in my view, change the building regulations to say that all new housing must, in essence, become carbon neutral.”
The lack of consistency is an issue on which UK100 has been campaigning for months, calling on MPs and Peers to support an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that would have placed a duty on the Secretary of State and relevant planning authorities to have special regard to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change with respect to national policy, local plan-making and planning decisions.
UK100’s Chief Executive, Christopher Hammond, says:
“The recent updates to the National Planning Policy Framework are like getting socks for Christmas — they’re okay, but they’re not what you really wanted. As Cllr Clewer told MPs on the Energy Security Committee, the planning system still doesn’t have the golden thread that knits the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target to the planning decisions being made on the ground.
“If we’re not planning for Net Zero in the planning system, then it’s not going to happen.”
“The NPPF is just one issue, though. Inadequate powers, disjointed remits across myriad public agencies, and a lack of national strategic leadership continue to produce overlaps, confusion and contradictory incentives.
“Above all, short-term, competitive funding pots spread thinly and inequitably prevent the strategic investment essential to deliver warmer, more affordable homes”
Last winter, UK100 produced an End the Wait: Insulate report that revealed just under £1 billion in sustained, needs-based investment in social housing energy efficiency would catalyse £2.7 billion in public-private financing to upgrade 180,000 vulnerable households by 2025.
It found narrow annual funding competitions were delaying action while squandering time and money.