The urgency of action on climate change seems at last to be widely accepted – and we know we have to take radical action now, and consistently into the future. One of the many challenges we face is decarbonising the housing stock: while new homes can and must be built to much higher energy and carbon standards, replacement of the housing stock is very slow, and the focus must be on making the necessary improvements to existing homes. But this too is moving at a painfully slow pace. Time is running out, and debate may be shifting away from little nudges and enticements towards a firmer regulatory approach. On a very basic level it can be argued that making things obligatory is the best way to leverage as much private investment as possible, leaving the thinly stretched public funds for supporting those who most need help.
A crucial policy tool to consider is the application of mandatory minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) to existing buildings. It is still early days in terms of practical examples of how this might be done, and the approaches tried so far look more like a ‘toe in the water’ than full immersion. The requirement for social housing in the Netherlands to achieve an EPC B rating by 2020 stands out, not least because this represents around a third of housing in that country. Rather more tentative is the setting of a minimum E rating for private rented housing in England and Wales – however this is an interesting example in that this is a notoriously difficult sector to tackle. In Flanders a measures-based approach is used, requiring roof insulation for rented properties.
There is no one solution, and the devil is doubtless in the detail. There are decisions to be made as to when and how a requirement is applied in practice, such as when a home is sold or a new rental agreement is made – or when major works are done on a home, linking in to Building Regulations. Other considerations include what metrics are used, how the measurements are made, and how high a standard is required. The EPC rating is typically a fairly basic tool, but does at least attempt a whole house assessment.
Improving home energy performance brings a wide range of potential co-benefits, not least a reduced risk of energy poverty. Comfortable indoor temperatures and affordable energy costs are a boost to well-being and health. Building renovation work tends to benefit the local economy, offering local and community-based employment opportunities within a market served largely by small businesses. But what are the wider issues that may be raised when implementing such policies? It is critical to ensure that the social and economic implications of new policies are well understood in order to avoid increasing inequalities, or even creating new problems.
Discussing these issues with a range of stakeholders concerned with housing and social welfare highlighted some key issues. One of these is that energy is just one aspect of housing quality. Setting mandatory energy standards should be part of an integrated housing strategy, where the housing needs for all sectors of the population are taken into account – applying them to one sector only could add to the pressures of ‘gentrification’ of areas, or push housing from a more to a less regulated sector. The loss of affordable rented properties is a potential risk – for example to holiday lets and air B&B, if the latter are not controlled along the same lines as permanent tenancies.
Another key issue is that a socially just and effective approach needs to be underpinned by a comprehensive and well-resourced set of enabling and enforcing provisions. ‘Enabling’ includes advice, good quality technical assessments, and finance, with the latter consisting of several options to fit different situations. One-size-fits-all is unlikely to be a success.
MEES will not work in isolation, but needs to be part of a long term strategy which has support across the political divides – and which is well communicated to, and shared with, citizens, housing providers and the building and energy efficiency industry. This is no small challenge, but it is one which must be embraced if commitments to tackle climate change are to be more than empty words. A socially just energy transition which improves the well-being of all, in particular the most vulnerable in society, is the objective. What could be more important than that?
This article is linked to a discussion paper produced as part of a project commissioned by the European Climate Foundation to consider the key social and welfare issues arising with regard to the application of minimum energy efficiency standards for existing buildings. The full paper can be found here.