Government’s plan for decarbonised heat ‘risks electoral damage’

Disagreements within government over the cost of decarbonising homes have pushed back the publication of the long-expected Heat and Buildings Strategy, leaving industry with no policy framework to follow, according to Labour and an industry group.

The cost of domestic retrofits - such as this house with heat pump, solar thermal and photovoltaic systems - is too great for the public to bear, say some MPs. Photograph: Gareth Simkins

The strategy – which will determine how the country decarbonises domestic and commercial buildings – was expected next week, though it had been subject to repeated delays beforehand. It is now due in the autumn, ahead of November’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

ENDS understands that a formal decision to delay the strategy has not yet been made, but is all but certain when ministers meet this week.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 's press office refused to comment on the speculation, telling ENDS: “We have always said that we will set out plans to decarbonise heat and buildings, including through a bespoke strategy, this year. Decarbonising our homes and buildings in a fair and affordable way for consumers and the taxpayer is a key element of our strategy to achieve this goal.” .

Measures to improve the energy efficiency of the existing building stock, and to make reliance on gas boilers history, will be critical for reaching net zero. Heating buildings accounts for about a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, so it cannot be swept under the carpet. Recognising this, the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan said that the country should aim to deliver 600,000 heat pump installations by 2028, up from minimal levels currently.

Expectations are that the installation of new gas boilers will be outlawed from 2035. But how the switch to heat networks, heat pumps and even hydrogen boilers should be managed – and in particular subsidised – is being disputed within Whitehall. Heat pumps cost thousands of pounds, while for the moment not a single house in the country is kept warm by hydrogen.

READ MORE: Housing decarbonisation targets are ‘ambitious but achievable’, says sector

READ MORE: What to expect from the Heat and Buildings Strategy

“Without the government’s long-awaited strategy, we are seeing routes to market limited for the renewable heat sector and deployment stalling at a crucial moment in the UK’s heat decarbonisation efforts. If the government is serious about decarbonising heat and meeting their net zero ambitions, they cannot afford to keep delaying such crucial support for our industry,” said the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology’s chief executive Nina Skorupska.

Both the Times and Sky News report that the cost of the nascent plans is causing resistance among a clique of MPs such as climate sceptic Tory Steve Baker. “Government must come clean on the range, scale and costs of the transformation planned for all our lives and secure public consent, or we face a political fiasco to eclipse the Brexit drama,” he tweeted today.

South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay expressed similar views about the “muddled, costly and impractical” path to net zero in opinion piece published by ConservativeHome on Thursday.

“The government is fooling itself if it thinks we can go down the net zero path without electoral damage. We will look, quite rightly, like the privileged few taking the poor back to the lifestyles of the early 20th century. The optics of jetting from one international climate conference to the next to tell other people they should not be flying, driving and eating meat, is not one that will be sustainable when these policies really start to bite,”

He particularly singled out the “huge cost and significant risks” of retrofitting air source heat pumps, additional insulation and larger radiators, quoting an estimate of £103bn for social housing alone. Scaled up across the entire housing stock, the cost would be over £500bn.

“We should pause for breath, inject some rational thinking and consider the alternatives before it’s too late. I am actively discussing these issues with colleagues as we simply cannot watch a financial, societal and political disaster unfold before us,” he warned.

But the resulting inaction means that the government “is making decarbonising our heat network harder – the business department’s repeated delays in publishing the Heat and Buildings Strategy means there is no policy framework, timelines or priorities set out by the government for industry. In this scenario, it is hardly a surprise that progress is limited,” said Darren Jones, the Labour chair of the Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

As he expressed in PoliticsHome on Wednesday, “there is no question” that mass retrofitting will lead to disruption, and that ministers will have to subsidise the cost.

“Certainly, from what we have heard it’s clear that decarbonising domestic heating is a major challenge to delivering net zero due to the scale, complexity, and cost. But it is also a great opportunity, improving the quality of people’s homes, reducing energy bills, stimulating investment into UK manufacturing and creating demand for thousands of jobs across the country,” Jones wrote.

He said that “many other” policies vital for reaching net zero are stuck in traffic while the Treasury finalises its Net Zero Review, detailing how the goal will be financed. “It’s time for the Chancellor to step up,” the MP tweeted.

Labour is clearly seeking to exploit the split within the Conservatives. At the core of our message must be the creation of millions of green jobs, building cutting-edge low carbon manufacturing, insulating tens of millions of homes, modernising our public transport system and telecommunications, and so much more. Only a party that truly believes in active government, not free market-based solutions, can deliver that,” said former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon.