Energy-efficient measures promised in the Green Deal are being hampered by planning rules.
Paula Owen and I are staring at her wall. The wall in question was built around 100 years ago, is covered in London grime and sorely needs re-pointing. It belongs to one of the thousands of Edwardian terraces and semis that ring our cities and which now, in the days of high energy costs and climate change, need dramatic improvements.
It is also going to cause home owners, the Government and local authorities a lot of headaches unless there is some joined-up thinking.
“Despite all our efforts, this is a cold house,” says Paula, who has lived in Streatham, south London, for eight years. “When it’s really cold in the winter, we can’t get the internal temperature up much beyond 16C [61F], even with the heating full on. We have to huddle under blankets in the evenings.” Paula and her partner, Rob McDonald, are young and fit but in the winter, this kind of home can be a killer for the elderly. It is precisely this kind of “hard to treat” solid-walled house that the Government’s new “Green Deal” initiative, launched this autumn, hopes to target.
Under the initiative, home owners will be able to take out loans from a central fund to install energy-saving measures such as double glazing and solar panels. A golden rule of the scheme is that loan repayments will never exceed savings made on energy bills.
There are worrying early signs that consumers are going to get lost in a maze of contradictory policies and poor advice as the Government leaves much of the administration of the Green Deal to the “market”. The cost of paying Green Deal assessors, for example, may be £100 or more, which will be an upfront cost not covered by the Green Deal funding.
With a doctorate in climate change science from Oxford and a career in environmental consulting, you might have thought that Paula Owen would be able to navigate the treacherous waters of energy-efficient home improvements. Yet even she is having problems.
Take her wall. It is a windowless alley-facing side wall between her semi and the next. This wall is one of the reasons why Paula’s home is so cold. It’s as leaky as a sieve. “We’ve done everything we can to save energy including 270mm [11in] of loft insulation and a double-glazed conservatory at the back of the house to replace the draughty lean-to,” says Paula. “The only thing we can do now is insulate that outside wall.”
Where houses have solid walls, rather than cavities, it is more energy efficient to apply external rather than internal insulation. This allows the existing walls to act as a “thermal store”, remaining cool in the summer and warm in the winter while the new external insulation does all the work. External insulation, usually rigid foam topped with render, needs to be at least 100mm (4in) deep to make it worth the £10,000 per wall cost of installing it. “Any thinner and you don’t get low enough U-values – the rate at which heat escapes from a material,” says Paula.
Unfortunately some local authorities, including Paula’s Lambeth, consider 100mm of insulation on the outside of a house to be tantamount to an extension, requiring home owners to go to the expense and delay of applying for planning permission, even if their homes are not listed or in a conservation area.
In advice sent to Paula, Lambeth Council said: “the application of an insulating material and a render skim would normally result in the ‘enlargement’ of the property,” and thus she would need permission.
“When I got my advice I just thought: ‘this is bonkers’,” says Paula. “That’s hundreds of pounds more cost, a delay of 12 weeks, plus uncertainty over whether permission would be granted at all. We’ve got eight million homes in this country that could benefit from external insulation but many people are going to be put off from installing it.”
She also wonders whether assessors will flag up the need for planning permission in their surveys. “Advice in this area is poor. When I had solar panels installed my electricity meter started going backwards. I had no idea that it shouldn’t and that I needed a different meter, but my installers didn’t tell me that.” Thousands of other people have had the same experience and now some are in dispute with their energy providers, who don’t believe they haven’t tampered with their meters.
All it would have taken to avoid this problem, and the external insulation problem, would be sensible, strategic thinking from our civil servants, but it hasn’t happened. A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said the majority of Green Deal measures won’t require planning permission, and local authorities differ in what thickness of external insulation would require planning permission.
A Lambeth Council spokesman said local authorities would benefit from central government planning guidance before the Green Deal is fully implemented in January. “This problem is caused by national planning legislation,” said the spokesman. It’s not an issue that’s only local to Lambeth. “Residents who are trying to do the right thing by insulating their houses could be hampered from doing so by current government planning legislation which means the work legally requires planning permission, rather than by ‘permitted development’ rules. The Government needs to look again at the law so that people who want to make their homes more energy efficient are not unduly prevented from doing so.” Amen to that, otherwise a well-intentioned policy could end up sending home owners round the bend.
Paula’s wall trials are on her blog, paulaowenconsulting.co.uk