How Net Zero leads to mouldy homes

The UK government’s insulation programme has been an all-too-predictable disaster.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics Science & Tech UK

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If there’s one thing dull British politicians often get excited about, it’s insulating the nation’s draughty homes.

As boring as it sounds, cavity-wall insulation was one of the great green hopes of Gordon Brown when he was UK prime minister. More recently, energy secretary Claire Coutinho committed the Conservative government to spending £1 billion on insulating 300,000 homes. The Great British Insulation Scheme was one of many government-funded insulation initiatives that have cropped up in recent years. It was sold not only as a way to knock hundreds of pounds off household bills, but also as a huge win for making the UK a more environmentally friendly place.

It’s easy to forget how much of a fuss was made over insulation just a couple of years ago. So much, in fact, that an entire protest group formed around the cause. Insulate Britain, founded by members of sister group Extinction Rebellion, proved to be a monumental nuisance to the public throughout 2021. Insulate Britain rose to infamy by blocking off major roads, stopping people from going to work, travelling on holiday and even getting to hospital. Activists demanded that the government pledge ‘a low-energy and low-carbon retrofit of all homes in Britain by 2030’.

The government agreed to roll out more insulation, if not to that timeframe. But these efforts have since gone horribly wrong. In hundreds of thousands of homes, the BBC reported last month, ‘botched’ installations could result in infestations of black mould. One Swansea mother says that, since her insulation was fitted three years ago, she has had to scrape mould off the walls every two weeks. Similar issues have been reported in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland.

This is not unexpected. The defects of cavity-wall insulation have been known about for years. It looks like the problem could be widespread, too. Figures from energy regulator Ofgem suggest that, since 2008, cavity-wall insulation has been installed in more than three million homes under various government schemes. In fact, the number of faulty installations might be much higher, given that 70 per cent of British properties with a cavity wall (or around 15million homes) have cavity-wall insulation.

All this should be no surprise. Properly retrofitting insulation requires real skill. Walls and brickwork may have cracks that bring in moisture, especially in the notoriously wet British climate. Poor ventilation, condensation and rubble at the bottom of cavities can all lead to wetness and damp. Combine that with a scarce supply of expert workers and Britain’s old and draughty housing stock, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The problem with ‘insulating Britain’ is that it is a far bigger task than anyone in Whitehall seems to have anticipated. What we really need to campaign for is a drastic deregulation of the planning system. This would allow the installation of mass-manufactured, low-cost homes that are both warm and breathable. The campaign will be long and hard but, unlike mass insulation, it will not take 60 years to complete.

In many ways, the insulation debacle is an allegory for the broader Net Zero agenda. Activists campaigned for it and politicians agreed to take it on, without anyone stopping to think whether or not it would work at all. The result has been a costly and damaging mess.

It’s no wonder that no one wants to talk about insulation anymore. That would mean acknowledging the damage that’s being done in the name of Net Zero. No matter how often the green agenda fails, our political class just can’t seem to let it go.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech UK


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