If we are to keep on anything like an achievable track to meet the carbon targets laid down by Labour’s own Climate Change Act in 2008, Labour will come to power facing an imperative to reduce carbon emissions by an unprecedented amount over an unprecedented short period. We’re already committed to making eye watering cuts in the carbon intensity of our energy sector by 2030. And as everyone knows in their hearts, the best form of cutting carbon in our energy sector is not to use it in the first place. Quantum changes in the energy efficiency of our industry and our buildings – using what will be an increasingly precious resource, as meanly as possible – has to be at the heart of any list of achievements that we might mark off in ten years’ time, at the end of Labour’s second term in government.
And there is right now, a major infrastructure project that could be central to those ten years. It can achieve that quantum change whilst reducing our nation’s fuel bills equally radically, fighting fuel poverty, and creating and sustaining thousands of jobs in the process. But it isn’t your traditional major infrastructure project. It is not the £100bn that might have been spent on a new Thames estuary airport, or the £30bn we might well be spending over the next few years on two new nuclear power stations. It doesn’t look like an infrastructure project because of its dispersed nature, but it would, on completion, be much more important to Britain’s economic and social wellbeing as the best of the grand schemes we often dream about. It is, at most, perhaps a £42bn spend to ensure that all Britain’s houses are warm and energy efficient. It would be a national makeover of our draughty, leaky, energy profligate housing stock.
Upgrading that stock, much of which (some seven million properties) takes the form of solid wall housing – which is impervious to cheap and easy insulation procedures – would permanently save around a quarter of our future energy requirement and would slash energy bills in those homes by up to 50 per cent. Fuel poverty, as we know it would be a thing of the past. Even if we were to upgrade only a third of those homes by the early 2020s (which the Committee on Climate Change says is essential to meeting our early 2020s carbon reduction targets) the overall cost would be less, looked at as an infrastructure project, than the building of the nuclear power station at Hinckley Point.
Labour has form, of course, in energy efficiency. The last government quietly and successfully raised the average energy efficiency rating of British homes by about 20 per cent over its term of office and, with the Warm Front and other schemes, insulated over 6 million homes during the later years of government. But now we need to complete the job. And we can see by the abject failure of Conservative market-based programmes such as Green Deal that we need to be far more radical and planned than these mechanisms allow for.
That is why this task needs to be a cornerstone of local authority action under a Labour government. Every local authority having its own area based plans, ‘housing efficiency action areas’, built into its local duty of stewardship of its areas, working with private sector partners to get the work done. That work would need to be undertaken in the first instance by recycling and redirecting the funding for failed programmes such as the £1.3bn per annum ECO programme, and by directing new green taxes such as the carbon tax or the proceeds from the sale of future permits for carbon trading within Europe. And also through the issuing of green bonds, issued by the Green Investment Bank and purchased by the government as a form of ‘green quantitative easing’, as a method of securing cheap loans to keep the work under way.
A not insignificant element of such a programme would be recycled into government coffers through the taxes paid by the hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs that would ride on the back of the programme, not to mention the savings in welfare payments that bad housing and sky high fuel bills give rise to.
And in so doing, the government would have probably virtually eliminated fuel poverty, placed Britain firmly on track to meet its carbon targets, permanently reduced the dole queues by a third, and stopped the scramble to build ever more extensive banks of power stations to fuel Britain’s energy needs in its tracks. All for less than half the cost of Boris Island. Not a bad piece of infrastructural investment.