Households across the UK have been hit hard by the sharp rise in wholesale gas prices, but the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens Cornish residents’ energy bills disproportionately. Why? Because the Duchy has some of the lowest energy efficiency rates in the UK. That means thousands of families pay more to keep their homes warm than they need to, only for the heat to escape. In the face of a growing energy crisis, it’s time to insulate.
Across the two Cornish constituencies we represent, thousands of homes are well below the national average for insulation. Some 15% of homes in Truro & Falmouth and a quarter in the constituency of St. Ives have an EPC rating of F or G, the draughtiest categories of building. Landlords aren’t legally allowed to let a property with these ratings, yet thousands of Cornish homeowners have to pay dearly for heat which is simply wasted.
Old granite cottages define Cornwall’s historic mining towns, fishing villages, and ports like Penzance and Falmouth. But, preserving these buildings, which give the region its unique character, shouldn’t mean people choosing between heating and eating.
Many people in Cornwall in draughty homes had to pay an extra £28 a month for heating during lockdown, compared to just £1.31 for those in well-insulated homes. They faced higher energy prices, due to the global gas crisis, even though more than half of homes here do not use gas for heating.
The injustice of fuel poverty is that those who can least afford high energy bills due to poor energy efficiency also cannot pay to insulate their homes. This traps struggling families into forking out more to stay warm, while well-off homes often enjoy lower bills. Despite being the premier British holiday destination, Cornwall is among the most deprived areas in the UK. It is hard not to conclude that our constituents are getting a raw deal. But the fact is that much of the country is badly affected by poor energy performance, with over 10% of English houses falling under the ‘low-income, high costs’ definition of fuel poverty. Sadly, this problem will only grow in April when bills rise to around £2,000, even more so should the current situation in Ukraine lead to prices as high as £3,000 in October.
There is little we can do to bring the unbearably high cost of gas down in the short term. The Energy Secretary has been conducting a series of meetings with friendly countries to secure our supply of gas and is pushing on with deploying cheap renewables and new nuclear. But we must not forget the one thing that will bring down bills and reduce fuel poverty in the short term: insulation.
We’ve tried this before with the Green Homes Grant and the Green Deal, but the schemes were too complex, too short-term, and didn’t deliver the desired results. Understandably, the Government may be hesitant about spending more cash on new insulation programmes. But the fact is we cannot afford to avoid the problem, especially when the Government increasingly has to pay more for the growing number of fuel-poor homes.
First, we can look to past schemes that have succeeded. Though the wider £2bn Green Homes Grant regrettably failed, despite huge demand, the Local Authority Delivery part of it has been a tremendous success. We should provide local authorities with more funding to get the job done through this existing programme.
The social housing and public sectors are great places to start scaling up an energy efficiency supply chain, but ultimately most of potential improvements are in owner-occupied houses. A simple, long-term grant scheme – or, better still, a cut to VAT on home energy improvements – would help kickstart the insulation industry. Making energy efficiency a priority for the new UK Infrastructure Bank would be a sensible move too, and working with banks and building societies to scale up retail products like green mortgages is a must.
All that must be supported with better regulation, which means bringing some common sense to the table. It is perverse that installing a heat pump in some cases lowers an EPC rating, even as we are encouraging early adopters to make the switch. We should scrap EPCs and replace them with something that helps our energy policy objectives. The Government must also press on with moving some of the green levies away from electricity and on to gas bills, so that those who do not use gas are not unfairly penalised, as they are now.
Our historic failure to insulate our homes has already cost British billpayers billions of pounds in wasted heat. But we are now also paying through our taxes to support the fuel poor. This is not a sustainable situation given the ongoing events in Europe mean high energy prices are likely here to stay. We must get going on insulating Britain’s homes.
First published by CapX. Cherilyn Mackrory MP (Truro and Falmouth) and Derek Thomas MP (St Ives) are members of the Conservative Environment Network.