Could the new National Infrastructure Bank help solve the home retrofit challenge?

Ron Cowley of the Active Building Centre argues sweeping changing to our housing stock are essential, and the government’s new bank could provide the catalyst that is desperately needed

Within my lifetime you could have held a conference of people worried about climate change in a room above a pub.

Times change, thank goodness.

The challenge now isn’t convincing people that global warming matters. It’s turning good intentions into real action.

Take the carbon impact of the buildings in which we live and work. No one disputes that they are one of the biggest sources of emissions in the UK. Few argue that nothing should be done. So how do we get to work?

There were some interesting ideas in the details of Rishi Sunak’s recent Budget.

In his speech, the Chancellor made a headline commitment to create a UK Infrastructure Bank that would finance a green industrial revolution.

The Budget documents explained that the new bank would offer local authorities cheap loans from this summer.

That’s significant because up and down the country councils have announced climate emergencies, demanding urgent action on carbon emissions, and they still own around 1.5 million homes in England alone. In other words, local authorities have identified a problem and can provide a solution: upgrading their homes to cut those emissions.

Why not use the new infrastructure bank’s money to pay for that work, creating skilled jobs around the country? The bank’s first core objective is tackling climate change, its second is supporting regional economic growth. This idea would achieve both.

Perhaps it could also direct money to housing associations and other builders help build net zero carbon homes anew.

We know the UK government wants to invest. It committed to more than £9bn of spending on energy efficiency in its manifesto. We know it is interested in building too. The Budget also announced a task force to examine modern methods of construction, headquartered in a new government office in Wolverhampton. This must surely involve technologies to cut carbon emissions.

There is a potential here for a truly transformative intervention. Homes – and other buildings – can be equipped to generate their own power, to know what the weather will bring in the coming days and decide whether to use that energy, store it or send it to the National Grid.

To many homeowners that will sound exotic. But electric cars sounded exotic not long ago. Only by creating more net zero homes will we make the technology commonplace, and – crucially – something tenants and buyers demand and expect.

At this point, some old hands might raise an eyebrow. They’ll argue that we have seen plenty of government schemes aimed at greener homes, spanning plenty of governments, and a step change has yet to come. Most recently, England’s Green Homes Grant has been the subject of considerable debate.

As with so much else Covid has made things harder. Homeowners have been understandably reluctant to get the builders in to make their homes greener in the teeth of a pandemic. But we could all be living much more normal lives very soon, and it would be easier to communicate an offer of financial support from the infrastructure bank to dozens of local authorities than a grant to millions of households.

Above all, the challenges of confronting this issue in the past can’t mean it is considered too difficult to solve in the future. Ninety per cent of homes in England use fossil fuels for heating, cooking and hot water. In total, 27 million homes will need to be transformed, requiring the mobilisation of £100bn of capital in the 2020s alone.

It is inconceivable that the UK could meet its climate targets without embarking on sweeping changes to its existing stock, and to its approach to building new houses. It is inconceivable too that the country could get through the year in which it proudly hosts COP26 without action.

In the end, buildings standards will be raised, and money invested in our future. It is not a question of whether changes come, but when, and it is time to make a start.

Ron Cowley is chief executive officer at the Active Building Centre, a centre of excellence advising on greener homes and offices.

Read more: businessgreen.com