As you may know, I have a long term plan to get my home to zero carbon by 2025. I’d have done it already if I could, but we’re basically moving as fast as we can afford. So when the government announced that it was going to help pay for home energy improvements, it was just the kind of support I’d been hoping for.
Under the Green Homes Grant scheme, I could submit my plans for energy efficiency or low carbon heat. If they met the criteria, the government would cover up to two thirds of the cost – or the whole cost for lower income households. Since I had a list of jobs already planned out, I got my quotes in, got the paperwork together and applied on the day the scheme opened.
And then nothing happened for quite a long time.
I had the insulation job booked in for December, hopefully in time to make a difference this winter. But there was no news on the grant. This was important, because the scheme was only open for a brief window, and all works had to be completed by the deadline or I’d end up paying the full price myself.
Two months passed. The prospective date for the work approached, with no news. Frustrated emails were exchanged with the company, who were also in the dark. Then the news stories started to appear. Nobody else had got their grant confirmations either. Companies were struggling to get themselves certified for participation. The scheme was extended, since clearly it wasn’t proceeding on schedule.
I have now received confirmation of the grant, one of the lucky quarter of applicants that have apparently been accepted. The job is booked in for April – too late for this winter, but better late than never. Whether the grant materialises remains to be seen. Reports are now emerging of contractors who haven’t been reimbursed by the scheme. Some are so deeply out of pocket that they have had to lay off staff, meaning the Green Homes Grant has actually cost jobs in refurbishment when it was supposed to create them.
The net effect remains to be seen, but at the moment it’s chaos. Installations are being cancelled because contractors haven’t been paid. And the emails that I’m getting about the scheme at the moment are largely scams, inviting me to submit my bank details and make a claim.
This feels like history repeating. In 2013 David Cameron’s coalition government launched the ‘Green Deal’. The name was a botched reference to the Green New Deal that was doing the rounds at the time, and the scheme proved to be as half-baked as the name. Described as a ‘flagship’ piece of legislation at the time, the idea was that households would be supported with loans for home improvements, which they would then pay back. Because the savings from the improvements would be greater than the repayments, people would benefit financially straight away.
Unfortunately, the scheme was fiendishly complicated. Households had to get an assessment before they could apply, then work out a plan for their works and repayments. This tailored approach made it slow and bureaucratic, and the vast majority of people gave up after the first stage. In its first six months, over 38,000 households had an assessment, but only 241 decided to move forward with the scheme. A grand total of four households had got all the way through to setting up a payment plan.
Things did speed up after that. Changes were made and interest rates were tweaked. But ultimately the plan failed anyway and it was scrapped in 2015. Many companies had invested in anticipation of a boom in refurbishment and energy efficiency. Those investments did not pay off, leading to job losses and the collapse of one of the country’s biggest insulation companies. With that kind of legacy, it’s possible that the whole Green Deal scheme did more harm than good.
Is the Green Homes Grant going the same way? I hope what we’re seeing at the moment is teething issues between the government and its outsourcing partner – of course – the American consulting firm ICF. The failure of the Green Deal buried energy efficiency for a decade. We cannot afford to do that again.
Energy efficiency remains the simplest way to cut carbon emissions at the household level. It’s also the best way to deliver climate actions that benefit the poorest: those on the lowest incomes are most likely to have substandard housing that wastes energy, and have the least money to spend on bills. Energy efficiency tackles energy poverty at the same time as carbon emissions. And since it results in warmer and more comfortable homes, there’s a clear gain for wellbeing too.
Britain’s ambitions for floating wind power, modular nuclear reactors and hydrogen planes are all very well, but we ought to be paying a lot more attention to the simple things closer to home.
Update: Yes, is the answer to the question in the title. A week after this was written, the government pulled three quarters of its £2 billion budget, essentially admitting that it had failed.