Labour’s “Warm Homes for all”: public interest policy or electoral spin?

With the battle for Downing Street well underway, political parties from all areas of the spectrum have begun the tradition of rolling out promises to appeal to the public.

In what is arguably one of the most controversial and contentious general elections in living memory, mainstream party leaders are going to have to work extra hard to win back voters who have shifted to second-tier opposition like the Green Party, Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Labour, in particular, has noticed a swing in its support to the Greens – although both parties do share some common ground. With this in mind, Labour announced its new “warm homes for all” policy at a recent election pledge. The proposed policy would involve a “warmer homes’ retrofit” of all domestic properties in the UK. This would include double glazing, solar panels, insulation and heat pumps in an effort to reduce fuel poverty and would help our buildings to produce at least as much energy as they use. It would also neutralise the carbon footprint of each home in the country, and all new homes constructed from 2022 onwards would have a carbon-neutral requirement.

Spin or reality?

While few can complain about the sentiments of “warm homes for all”, whether it’s a realistic proposition is another idea altogether. If history has taught us anything, it’s that very few energy policies or directives manage to stand the test of time.

We don’t have to delve too far into the past to see evidence of this. For example, the current government’s “Green Deal” for home improvements was found by the National Audit Office to have failed in 2016. The Department for Energy and Climate Change pumped £240 million into the scheme, with a further £154 million being contributed from other sources.

A nice idea in theory – but in practice, the green deal failed to deliver any tangible benefits. Instead, it increased the costs of energy suppliers, and therefore pushed energy bills up even further for the general public – who had already contributed millions in the form of taxes.

Elsewhere, policies like the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) and the Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP) suffered from large failure rates and a government report found neither to be particularly cost-effective.

“Warm homes for all” in practice

At present, domestic heating and energy use accounts for nearly 20% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint. It’s therefore recognised that the decarbonisation of housing is a relatively urgent task which will require a certain degree of effort – but do Labour’s plans cut the mustard?

At present, there’s certainly no shortage of providers for brand-new zero-carbon homes. On a local level, councils would be able to undertake construction themselves or work alongside private developers and housing associations. Should Labour be elected, all developers and builders would be required by law to construct zero-carbon homes by 2022, regardless of whether councils choose to work with private companies or go it alone.

The warmer homes’ retrofit is estimated to cost in the region of £250 billion. Labour has pledged to provide £60 billion of that in public subsidies – less than a quarter of the overall figure needed. The rest of the money would come from “energy savings” made further down the line – but is all of this feasible?

Councils and housing associations are already under incredible strain to deliver decent, affordable housing. The level of investment from the current Conservative government has receded, with housing associations having to build properties for private sale before investing any profits into “true” social housing – as in, homes that are available to rent below market levels.

An unnecessary policy?

Some critics of Labour’s recent manifesto might feel the need to highlight the “warm homes” policy as surplus to requirements, expensive and difficult to successfully implement.

With the rollout of PAS 2035 (a document outlining the retrofit standards framework, which specifies the need for a holistic approach to the retrofitting of homes) some would argue that solid guidelines for improving energy efficiency in the UK have already been drawn up and implemented.

Implementing the “warm homes” policy

To take the pipe dream of the “warm homes for all” idea and turn it into a reality, any incoming government would require enough funding to retrofit old homes and construct new ones – and it’s hard to see where the money would come from without a spike in taxes. It would also need to introduce further regulation to ensure older buildings are brought up to standard, as well as revolutionising the concept of what is currently considered acceptable for how houses should feel and look. For some, this may seem a little too far-fetched – but time will surely tell.