We set up false barriers to adopting energy conservation measures in our houses. It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves

Andrew Stunell

The problem is easily stated: we have around 14 million homes in private ownership with collectively the worst environmental and energy performance of any country in Europe. But the solution is elusive, the blame game continues, and reaching anywhere near the country’s carbon reduction targets clearly requires some urgent new thinking.

I invite readers who are homeowners, registered to vote, and who work in the building industry to decide whether it is consumers, government or industry that has the most thinking to do, and then to sign up to do your bit in one or more of those roles to make it happen. For a start, how much did you pay for your new kitchen?  

Here’s a familiar scenario. At home we had what we still call our “new kitchen” fitted 10 years ago. I came across the invoice the other day, and saw that even back then it cost us £8,800. Nothing fancy, no granite tops or hardwood drawer fronts. Just a serious five-figure price.

Three years later we replaced the boiler - but only because it broke down. The year after that, I finally got round to getting the cavities insulated.  Between them the boiler and the insulation cost less than half the price of the kitchen, and have been saving me money ever since. Unlike the kitchen, which obstinately refuses to offer any cash-back facility.

Seeing that invoice set me thinking again about what the real barriers are to a large-scale successful programme to renovate and refurbish our existing housing stock, and how those barriers can be overcome.Household surveys designed to find out the reasons for low take-up for energy conservation measures usually report that the biggest barriers are cost and affordability, and the inconvenience and disruption of the works. Commentators often add another: consumer inertia fed by suspicion over pay-back benefits.

If any of those surveyors and commentators ever had a new kitchen fitted they would know there is no government scheme or incentive to do it, that it costs an arm and a leg, and is much more disruptive than having cavity wall insulation put in. Even so, as many new kitchens are ordered each year as new central heating boilers, and at a much higher cost per installation. There is, of course, no pay-back at all. As for cavity wall insulation, you could do five for the cost of one kitchen.

UK construction regulators have been kept on the defensive by an industry that does more whingeing then building. Standards have risen painfully slowly

Why don’t the seemingly insuperable barriers of cost, disruption and dubious financial savings that are said to undermine the market for energy conservation measures apply in spades to kitchens?

It’s not sufficient to say that it is an inevitable consequence of property resale values. The transformation of the car market in the past decade shows that those fundamentals can and do change. Out there a lot of people are now ready to pay a significant premium to have a “green” dual fuel vehicle. Driving a car with extreme MPG is a badge you can wear with pride in any company. High running costs have made big old cars unfashionable (and cheap to buy), unlike big old houses. So we need to make the house market more like the car market.

That’s where the building industry has to play its part. The vehicle manufacturers have made cars more durable, more sophisticated, more intuitive to drive, and much safer in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, homes have become more complex, harder to use, and arguably less durable. The gap in research, design and innovation between the two industries is enormous. And whereas new car owners are delighted with their sophisticated comfort-stations, back home they struggle with fuel bills, thermostats and plumbers.

To bridge that gap we need determined government to take a lead. The reality is that the advances in vehicle design have been driven by the regulators rather than consumers. And while car manufacturers are no happier than building contractors when hit by a stream of regulatory requirements, the difference has been that their squeals were readily trumped by all-powerful regulators in California and Brussels. In contrast, UK construction regulators have been kept on the defensive by an industry that does more whingeing than building. Standards have risen painfully slowly, and obvious moves like mandatory improvements when homes are resold or extended have been successfully resisted by an industry that fears change.

So if you are a homeowner with a new kitchen, stop pretending it’s the cost that’s stopping you cutting your fuel bills in half. If you work in the construction industry, stop blocking tougher regulation and finding more excuses to do nothing, and if you’ve got a vote, use it to get a representative in parliament who will support the strong environmental regulation that can make your home greener than your car, sooner than you think.

Andrew Stunell is Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove and a former minister with responsibility for Building Regulations