Ahead of the election Simon Storer looks at the energy efficiency challenges ahead

A recurrent theme during this election campaign has been the price consumers pay on their energy bills; Are we being ripped off? Will a price cap work? Are the energy companies profiteering? And is it a competitive market place?  There are of course, various opinions to these questions from across the political spectrum. But the other side of this same coin which is of equal, if not greater importance, is how can we reduce our energy bills by reducing the amount of energy we require and why energy efficiency measures are essential for the country in the longer run?

We all know that we have some of the least energy efficient and poorest performing homes across Europe and with the relatively small number of new homes being built each year, we are only adding a very small percentage to the overall housing stock. This means that the vast majority of homes that will be around in 2050 have already been built. Whilst we should insist on a much steeper increase of energy efficiency standards for new build, so as to negate the need to retrofit these houses in the future,  we also have to improve dramatically the existing stock if we are to come anywhere near the ambitious 2050 climate change targets.

There is no doubt that bringing existing housing up to an acceptable energy efficiency standard to meet the challenges of the future is difficult, but not to do so is a dereliction of our duty to future generations. Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a range of policies and initiatives to improve the building stock.  Some improvements have been made and plenty of homes are better than they were.  But we still have many homes that are woefully inadequate, with occupants and owners either unaware or unwilling to understand even the basic energy improvements that could and should be carried out.

The challenge therefore is to dramatically improve all existing houses and other buildings.  We must ensure the finished articles perform to the standard intended; to compensate and correct if this is not achieved; and to  determine who will pay for the work  and how this will be achieved.

One of the fundamental flaws in our system is our lack of ability to measure sufficiently and demonstrate how a building is performing. We have the materials and the knowledge to improve the housing stock, but who is to judge what needs to be done, to confirm that it has been retrofitted to a decent standard and show that the work provides value for money? Unless we have a credible and trustworthy measuring system in place, we will never achieve the standards necessary.

In effect we have three categories of housing – owner-occupied, privately-rented and local authority/housing association owned housing – but within this you begin to see the complexity of the problem as each category has its own challenge. For the private rented sector – which includes some of the worst performing housing in the country – there are now suggestions of introducing a minimum EPC rating that must be achieved before a property can be let. However, because landlords do not live in their properties there is little incentive for them to make improvements. Tenants pay the bills, but why would they make a long-term investment in a property they don’t own? Local authorities are perhaps in the best position, as there is more of an incentive and therefore tend to be better-performing properties. And for private owners we have yet to find suitable incentives for the majority to invest in energy saving initiatives in their own homes.

A different problem for each sector, which no government has yet managed to address successfully. The political will is too lukewarm about doing this. It is a difficult problem to address and it appears governments would prefer to pass the responsibility over to the industry. The recent Each Home Counts Bonfield report is another attempt to address this issue, which many of us welcome, but without full government commitment it is likely to go the way of previous attempts.

Unless we have full-blooded government-backed policy that uses legislation and regulation to deliver targets, there is a danger that once again the issue will fall between the cracks. With the election behind us, the question remains whether the government is so wrapped-up with Brexit over the coming years that energy efficiency will be once again kicked into the long grass.

We cannot afford to continue missing what we all know needs to be achieved.  There will come a time soon when we really do have to deliver.