Ambitious UK government targets to decarbonise construction are unlikely to be met because of labour and funding shortages, industry bodies have warned.
Around a third of all the energy in the UK is used in homes, which are in turn responsible for around a fifth of total carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Construction Leadership Council, which is co-chaired by government and industry.
But, despite a series of government announcements aimed at improving housing, with more expected ahead of the UN COP26 climate change conference, there are “serious key questions over who will do the work and who will pay for it”, said Noble Francis, economics director at the Construction Products Association.
The UK has 28m homes, most of which will need improvements if the government is to meet its target of reducing emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 and achieving net zero by 2050.
This requires retrofitting existing homes and building energy-efficient new ones as around three-quarters of England’s housing stock is over 40 years old, according to the Department for Levelling up, Homes and Communities.
The CLC estimates that this will cost £525bn by 2040, including £168bn of government investment, or £18,750 per home.
Even more problematic than the cost is who will do the work and from where the products will be sourced as there are already shortages of key materials and skills in the sector.
The latest Homes Builders Federation quarterly survey of housebuilders reported that nearly 40 per cent of companies considered labour availability to be a severe constraint compared to only 20 per cent in December 2020.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy disputed the figures, pointing out that the Climate Change Committee, an independent statutory body that advises the government, has estimated it will cost around £250bn to improve housing.
BEIS said it was “completely incorrect to state that all UK homes will need retrofitting with energy efficiency measures”. “In fact, nearly 40 per cent of UK homes are above the standard required for net zero, and this figure is continuing to rise,” it added.
The government has already set several targets aimed at decarbonising the built environment, including the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution in November 2020. This includes proposals for 600,000 heat pumps to be installed in homes every year instead of boilers by 2028.
Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders and chair of the retrofit workstream for the CLC, said that although “different assumptions can be made about the balance of technologies that could be used to make our homes greener, installing heat pumps or other technologies without addressing the leaky walls, floors and roofs, will miss the mark we are all aiming for.”
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A much delayed heat and buildings strategy is also due to be published later this month while another raft of government decarbonisation announcements is expected ahead of COP26, which the government is hosting in Glasgow.
Suzannah Nichol, chief executive of Build UK, which represents contractors, urged the government to “set more realistic annual targets that can be achieved — stop talking about it and get delivering them”.
Previous attempts by the government to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes have faltered.
In 2011 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition pledged to retrofit 14m homes by 2020 with insulation, new boilers and double glazing in what it billed as the “largest and most ambitious home improvement programme our country has seen since the second world war”.
According to the public accounts committee, the parliamentary spending watchdog, only 14,000 households ended up using the grants scheme before it was cancelled in 2015.
More recently, the government announced the Green Homes Grant in July 2020 with the ambition that it would retrofit 600,000 homes. This was cancelled in March after failing to achieve even 10 per cent of the target.