The government’s long-awaited review of the private rented sector – the Renters Reform Bill – made only a passing mention of the Decent Homes Standard which would ensure private landlords “provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort” – despite the shocking death of youngster Awaab Ishak and numerous news stories about tenants putting up with terrible mould and damp.
This is hopefully something they’ll address very soon. Many private landlords are already understandably concerned about proposed government changes to Energy Performance Certificate regulations and some of those with poorly performing properties have even started selling up. More than 65,000 went up for sale in England during the first three months of the year, 36,460 of which had an EPC rating of D or less, according to market analyst TwentyCi. Although there’s still no firm date for private landlords to improve their properties, it’s likely to be put back to 2028. Despite this, many fear they won’t be able to afford the necessary improvements without government help. Those in Wales could be luckier, as the Senedd recently acknowledged that the introduction of revised Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards could be prohibitively expensive and might require some financial support.
At least the UK government is investing some cash in new green finance projects. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero recently announced that 26 projects will share £4 million to encourage homeowners to make their properties more energy efficient and save on their energy bills, while buy-to-let landlords might be able to add the cost of green improvements onto their mortgage through a trial run by Ashman Bank. It will assess a property’s energy efficiency, provide options on how it can be improved and include the cost of carrying out works on to the duration of the mortgage. We’re also seeing a slow drip feed of green finance products from the private sector, like the Nationwide’s 0% Green Additional Borrowing mortgage, allowing households to borrow between £5,000 and £15,000 to fund non-structural, energy-efficient home improvements.
Interestingly, increasing numbers of landlords in Scotland have reported damp and mould problems after forking out for energy efficiency work. The Scottish Association of Landlords reports that it has seen a significant increase in calls about damp and mouldy properties from members who put in extra insulation, particularly those who hadn’t previously had an issue – and it puts the blame partly on tenants not switching on their heating, but also the fitters who did the work. Not a great advertisement for green improvements but yet more proof that a lack of training and oversight in the retrofit sector can harm reputations and people’s health.
While we’re enjoying the sunshine, it’s easy to forget that all-too-soon these landlords – and homeowners – will be beset with the same problems we witnessed last winter. Energy bills are set to remain high despite a cut in prices from July, with a typical household paying £2,074 a year for gas and electricity, £426 a year less than current levels, after the regulator cut the energy price cap for England, Scotland, and Wales – but without the £400 government discount. Perhaps it will take note of a new survey which found that heat pumps are winning fans around the country. Nesta’s poll of more than 2,500 domestic heat pump owners and 1,000 domestic gas boiler owners showed that 81% are as satisfied or even more satisfied with their new heat pump compared to their previous heating system, and those living in Victorian or older properties are even more chuffed, which is surely a good advertisement for ditching gas. If the government wants to give voters a warm glow, it could reduce heat pump costs for even more homes by committing extra funding for its £450m Boiler Upgrade Scheme which has been suffering from a disappointingly low take-up.
It’s possible however, that household energy bills could go up by another £120 a year to fund the development of hydrogen gas. MPs are debating the new Energy Bill as part of the government’s net zero plans which might add the annual costs on top of subsidies for other green energy, from 2025. It’s a noble aim, but the Conservatives’ ambitions evidently don’t go as far as Labour, whose new policy handbook – due to shape its manifesto – has some bold promises regarding retrofit. The party is promising to deliver a National Warm Homes Plan, upgrading every home that needs it to EPC standard C within a decade by installing energy-saving measures such as loft insulation, by going street by street in locally delivered programmes. It also promises to give devolved governments and local authorities the power and resources to bring every home in their area up to standard within a decade. Although the party has just announced it’s delaying plans to borrow £28 billion a year for a green prosperity fund under a Labour government as a result of the poor economic backdrop, it has already committed to using parts of the fund for a range of green schemes, including £60 billion to pay for this home insulation. If Sir Keir takes up residence at Number 10, we could finally see a seismic change in attitudes, and the comfort and energy efficiency of our housing stock. The sector would certainly need to raise its game around training and standards – and start urgently recruiting that much-needed army of Energy Assessors.