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Burning down the house: some thoughts on the sustainable homes agenda

Even if we are already persuaded by the need for us as a society to do more – and more rapidly – about our degrading environment, it  is sometimes hard for any of  to get a real sense of necessary or likely timescales, of costs , of the manner in which we assume that we might  all live a ‘(reasonably) good life’.

Even if we consider the Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaign for zero carbon emissions by 2025 unachievable, we still have various governments’ ambitions that follow quite close on from that date. City of Edinburgh Council for example is now aiming for carbon neutral status by 2030.

The timescale dilemma is nowhere more apparent than with our housing, and how we create sufficient homes for people to own or rent, in neighbourhoods that are good to live in and which provide easy, sustainable modes of transport to elsewhere, whether for work or leisure.  It’s also important because the energy used in domestic housing is a significant part of our overall energy usage – and much of it is currently carbon generative.

But with housing we have several challenges – and it is not clear whether either developers or RSLs in Scotland are meeting those challenges. Such challenges relate to the creation of sustainable housing i.e. well-built, decent space, low but necessary maintenance, and lifetime low carbon generation, whether that is reflected in building, heating or travelling to and from those houses. This blog highlights just a few of these challenges and relates to earlier work by MainStreet on green infrastructure and housing developments  .

The first problem is the modest replacement rate that we see in domestic housing stock. Even if we build 100,000 units per year, in the right location and form, and to full PassivHaus standards, then that does not make much of a dent in our current stock of 2.3 million existing homes. A large number of those homes, even if relatively new, are not well-rated in terms of energy efficiency. A recent trip round the extensive array of housing developments on the southern edge of Edinburgh showed very few photo-voltaic (PV) panels even on South and South-West facing pitched roof homes.

A casual scanning of home reports accompanying property centre sales suggests that an Energy Rating of ‘C‘  is often as good as it gets, with some houses of quite modern build (less than 20 years old) shockingly rated at ‘E’. Reviewing 10 current RSL rentals available in Edinburgh again shows ‘C’ to be the most common rating.

Another problem is what form of space heating is used such dwellings – and critical for that is where you live in the country. It is important to note that fuel poverty is not well correlated with other aspects of poverty. The parts of Scotland that have fuel poverty rates in excess of 40% include typically lower income areas such as Eilean Siar, Argyll and Bute and Dundee . Rates also exceed 40% in Shetland and Aberdeenshire, both areas of high average household incomes so it’s not just cash that is the problem here. The key factor is whether or not households have access to mains gas supply – which many remote and rural areas do not – and are unlikely to ever have. Such houses are found in areas of typically lower annual ambient temperatures and are more likely to be detached dwellings. The Building Research Establishment estimate that electric space heating costs about 3 time the cost of gas space heating ; no wonder fuel poverty is distributed across Scotland  in the way it is. A recent Citizens Advice Scotland Report also showed consumers to be far less happy with electric heating than were those who have mains gas heating. If gas usage were discouraged by increased pricing , and there were better more consistent  incentives for PV installation and sustainable energy storage  , then there would be more switching  to PV and storage systems such as Sunamp. Scottish Power have projected a requirement for (UK-wide) 23M heat pumps in place of gas central heating and some 25M EV charging points – even on the basis of a 2050 timetable.

Unfortunately, to date all governments have poor records on the effective balance of penalising and incentivising of sustainable fuel systems. Remember that the proximate cause of the Stormont government collapse was the ‘Cash for Ash’ sustainable heating scandal.

More worryingly, if we put together the slow rate of house replacement and often slow retro-fitting with both governments’ plans for carbon reduction a lot more of us are going to have to get used to the more unpopular, more expensive and less efficient home heating with electricity. If natural gas is to be phased out, then the way governments will choose to do it is probably through increased tariffs (as now), and with little mass market development in better electric space heating, then far more of us might have to brace ourselves for more and wider spread fuel poverty. Such a failure to adapt will penalise a lot of households and make them very hostile to the kind of changes that are necessary.

It is not just a ‘Grand Designs’ fantasy to say that all developers (whether voluntary, public or private) should – right now – be planning houses that are full PassivHaus compliant, have adaptable heating systems that do not rely on natural gas or can be converted from reliance on that gas.

If they aren’t, then even more of us face a bleak – and chilly – future.

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