A few weeks on from the Heat and Buildings Strategy release, our policy and advocacy manager, Madeleine Greenhalgh, reflects on its impact.
There have been plenty of takes on the multiple strategies released by the government last month, but it’s always worth reflecting again once the content has had time to permeate. In the wake of COP26, I’m also reflecting on it in the context of the ambition and action the UK’s promises, as well as passionate speeches from young people, marginalised communities and those affected by frontline climate change. Does the Heat and Buildings Strategy actually start to deliver on the urgency and ambition that COP26 has shown us we need?
Starting at the highest level, that we now have an actual strategy for decarbonising our heat and buildings is a big step forward. The Strategy itself ticks a lot of boxes in terms of the principles it sets out and the language it uses to convey them. It also shows an indepth understanding of the issue and the task at hand – there is clearly a well-informed team at BEIS now who are driving in the right direction. For a while now, we have been floundering in the dark, trying to guess and second guess government policy on heat in the absence of any comprehensive published policy – we now have a strategy that we can dissect, praise, criticise and improve on over the coming years. Below, I’ve started to dissect a few of the key points in the Strategy.
One of our biggest asks in our four policy pillars is for long-term, multi-year, funded support scheme for both energy efficiency and zero carbon heat. The Strategy does deliver significant funding for social housing, low income and fuel poor households – a very positive step for a just transition, which must prioritise those who need to move quickly to improve their living environment and energy costs, and those who would otherwise be left behind in costly home improvements.
However, social housing, vulnerable and low income homes are not the only households that need additional focus in the just transition. The binary of ‘able to pay’ vs ‘not able to pay’ is far too simplistic, based on the assumption that anyone above a certain income level will have a spare £5-10k to spend, and be able to afford the time and effort to make that change. Renters also get left behind in this scenario, with almost no power to push their landlords to make the necessary changes.
The funding measures are rightly targeted at those who need them most, but the trend is clearly towards private investment with BEIS having very little power to change that – the Chancellor made it very clear in his Budget speech:
“Do we want to live in a country where the response to every question is: “what is the government going to do about it”? Or do we choose to recognise that Government has limits. That Government should have limits.”
Although heat pumps are clearly a first priority, particularly for off-gas properties, the Strategy does still hesitate and delay in order to wait for a decision on hydrogen.
“A ‘heat pump first’ approach to replacement heating systems from 2026 [in off-gas properties]”
Clearly there is a high level of faith in heat pumps, with a ‘heat pump first’ approach for off-gas properties, a heat pump innovation funding programme, grant funding being prioritised for heat pumps and energy efficiency, and a manufacturer production mandate. This is incredibly positive and will accelerate heat pump deployment, cost reductions and broader industry and consumer awareness. Despite this, we still lack a clear plan for how they will be rolled out in on-gas homes while we wait for a decision on hydrogen in 2026. If we are to truly respond to the urgency that COP26 calls for, we must have a decision on hydrogen before 2026, addressing the eight critical questions we set out in response to the Hydrogen Strategy.
Looking beyond finance
Financial concerns are clearly a big barrier to energy efficiency improvements and heat pump installations and the focus of much of the support is rightly targeted here. But the Strategy must start to look beyond those barriers and better understand what other barriers households will face in this transition. We must explore the wider variety of perspectives, lifestyles and family set-ups that make up a home if we are to fully understand how to help households transition.
For example, the disruption to a household when decarbonising could be significant – how will that work for those with large families, those can’t take time off work, those with accessibility or health issues? BEIS must urgently do consumer research to understand these differences, and the Strategy must include a plan to take such perspectives into account.
Shifting planning from reactive to proactive
The Strategy is beginning to shift its approach to forward planning to a more prescriptive, detailed form of planning. The Heat Network Zoning consultation is a great example of a model that will enable local authorities to identify what decarbonisation approach will be taken in particular areas. This allows areas and households to plan ahead, to understand relatively far in advance what options are available to them. It helps households to prepare, it helps local industry to scale up, it helps local authorities feed into overall decarbonisation planning, and it helps electricity networks understand future demand.
The proactive decisions for off-gas properties are also very positive for planners, giving a clear idea of what’s needed and what order actions will need to be taken in.
A similar, proactive approach must be taken for heating more broadly – identifying (sooner than 2026) which areas will be appropriate for hydrogen, which properties for heat pumps, and which remaining properties will need alternative solutions. Waiting for a solution to come forward through market structures will take too long and does not give industry, networks, local authorities and homeowners the certainty they need in order to plan ahead.
Shifting from reactive implementation to a proactive planning approach would be hugely beneficial to decarbonising heat, and an ideal model for similar planning in the electricity network which a system architect could follow. The new roles planned for the Future System Operator should incorporate this proactive, system architect approach to electricity as well as heat.
Success depends on your point of view
COP26 is a prime example that success means different things to different people – for some, various country commitments are a roaring success, for others it is too little, too late. It’s useful to apply a similar view to the Heat and Buildings Strategy.
Viewed through the lens of urgent climate action which goes faster and further to meet ever-pressing climate goals, the Strategy does not go far enough and it does not go fast enough.
However, if this is viewed through the lens of the Tory party – both its backbenchers, its donors, its members and its voters, much of this Strategy is revolutionary. The Prime Minister has clearly framed the approach to heat as one of ambition and progress in a clear rebuke to some of the rhetoric espoused by backbenchers and the mainstream media.
This Strategy could be viewed as the first proper attempt to bring decarbonisation into the general consciousness – to get people used to the change that’s coming, what heat pumps actually are, why energy efficiency is crucial, and how much this will all cost. From this point, it may be easier to push the government to ramp up ambition in future, and we should be preparing to do so.
Clearly parties along this spectrum have very valid points – we don’t have time to wait, but we also need a careful, just transition. For something as personal as heating someone’s home, this can’t be done without general agreement and consent from the majority of the population – and this will take time to foster. It is a core tenet of climate justice and one which cannot be ignored in the need to push for more urgent change.
The Heat and Buildings Strategy is clearly a significant step forward in our plans to decarbonise heat. Now we need to use it as an opportunity to raise public awareness, prepare industry – and ramp up ambition quickly.