Green Homes Grant: a stimulus that could generate mostly frustration

29 October 2020

Update: 20 November 2020 | Since this piece was written, the Government announced that the Green Homes Grant Scheme was being extended to March 2022. This is great news; it helps reduce the ‘rush to spend’, and gives more time and makes a stronger case for helping contractors to sort out accreditation. But many of the issues raised by Ian refers in his blog still stand.

Ian Preston fears that the Green Homes Grant will disappoint ...

Back in August the Government announced the Green Homes Grants as part of a £2bn stimulus to support 100,000 jobs and enable 600,000 homeowners to install energy saving and zero carbon heating measures in six months.

While the ambition and decent funding are welcome, the announcement can also be seen as the delayed launch of the Home Upgrade Grants, a manifesto pledge to long-term funding for the development of the low carbon housing refurbishment market that didn’t make it into the March 2020 budget.

Now, in the wake of Covid-19, the commitment has mutated into a rushed grant give-away that rather than ‘building back better’ risks stoking frustration and undermining market confidence.

Here’s why …

1) The impractical rush to spend

Firstly the money has to be spent (and works completed) by the end of March 2021. That would have been desperately tight, even in pre-pandemic conditions. Some works delivered under the scheme – for example solid wall insulation – may require planning approval and weather can be a limiting factor for swift delivery, particularly through the winter months. Throw in further lockdown restrictions and it’s difficult to see many installations meeting the deadline.

2) Finding someone to do the work

Secondly there simply aren’t enough of the right kind of contractors to meet the demand – and, unless things change, it’s unlikely there will be.

This is because in order to be eligible to install measures under the Green Homes Grant scheme a contractor needs to be Trustmark approved and member of a qualifying quality assurance programme such the renewables-focused MCS or the energy efficiency industry standard PAS 2030:(2019) scheme – and for some this is a hurdle they’re not prepared to jump.

I use the term ‘contractors’ here to cover both installers of single measures like cavity wall insulation, and local general builders. But these aren’t the same, and this is where the problem lies.

Take a decent small to medium sized local building company – of the type that the government may hope get involved in the Green Homes Grants. They have the skills needed to install internal or solid wall insulation alongside other measures, but implementing PAS 2030 requires time and money. It costs £1,500-£2,000 to become registered for one measure and then another £500 for each additional measure. So it could cost a small business £4,000 to become registered for all the insulation measures associated with a grant that may stop in a few months.

Some building companies had their fingers burnt registering for the failed Green Deal back in 2012-15. This is what one company told us: “Having gone through PAS 2030 in 2014, we do not wish to go through all over again, especially when, on past experience, the plug will get pulled on the scheme after a few months … there will be several companies that will get accreditation, and sub-contract the work out to any Tom, Dick or Harry, and cream off a substantial commission.”

Installers are a different matter. These are not general builders but companies who specialise in a particular measure. For them, Trustmark registration comes with the territory as they’re set up to deliver Energy Company Obligation (ECO) work – typically loft or cavity wall insulation. And they install this measure in large quantities, over a large geographical area and according a set procedure.

I’ve spoken to a couple of these installers who we work with to deliver measures under the ECO who told me two interesting things. Firstly that they had over 15,000 Green Homes Grants enquiries in the first few weeks. But secondly that they aren’t interested in following up all of these enquiries – or even most of them. The ones they want are those that fall into the low-income household stream of the Grant where the householder isn’t liable to any of the payment. This stream fully funds measures up to £10,000; you do the work and claim all the cash from the government. It’s hardly surprising that this is where they plan to focus their activity. There’s more money and no householder contribution to collect, and they can potentially hive off any lucrative ECO submissions.

PAS 2030:(2019) was introduced following the Each Homes Count review which followed the Green Deal’s failure and the dispiritingly high number of poor quality solid wall insulation works associated with it. Unfortunately the issue isn’t necessarily the quality standard that’s been implemented, it’s more fundamental than that, solid wall insulation is building work. It’s not a quick measure where you can follow a set procedure and install a measure in a day or less. Each job is customised and requires someone who’s going to take the time to ensure the right materials and approach are used for your home. Who would you want this to do to your home? A local builder you trust or an installer from maybe hundreds of miles away that you’ve never heard of?

I caught a phone-in on Radio 5 Live with Martin Lewis the other day. A lady from Banbury rang the programme to say that she wanted to work with her local builder who’s already been retrofitting her home but he wasn’t registered and the only installer she could get was from Birmingham. Needless to say she wasn’t keen on taking up the offer.

The Government thinks that opportunity will stimulate more contractors to go through the PAS 2030 process and then there will be more Trustmark approved people to do the work. But an ECO installer and a local building company aren’t the same thing at all.

What’s needed is a different approach to quality assurance for complex building works like solid wall insulation. This needs appropriate training and support, like that currently being offered by the Green Register as part of the Futureproof programme.

The Futureproof training takes a whole house and building fabric approach, and assumes that if explained appropriately, everyone can understand the concepts of building physics, the need to manage moisture and ensure adequate ventilation. If we can train builders on these concepts, the combination with their existing skills will increase the number of quality installations on site.

3) Advice, what advice…?

Thirdly, the advice available to householders before they even approach a builder or installer is inadequate.

At the moment, the first stage in the process is to go to the Simple Energy Advice (SEA) website, but the very basic report that they get can raise more questions than it answers. So householders have been calling us and organisations like us for additional independent advice. And we simply don’t have the capacity to deal with this. We aren’t funded to pick up this activity, and our phone lines are already receiving 50% more calls than last year supporting the most vulnerable in society who are struggling to pay their bills, many due to the economic impacts of Covid-19.

‘Independent’ is the key word here. If I call an installer and ask for advice on a single measure they have a vested interest to sell it to me. Furthermore without help, I am unlikely to have considered other critical issues like planning, conservation area restrictions, property orientation etc. Householders accessing the Green Homes Grant need to know they can spend a portion of their grant on independent advice from a Retrofit Assessor or Coordinator (both of which we are able to support with) to help them identify the best course of action for them and their property. It isn’t clear how someone would identify the appropriately qualified resource to provide this advice service. This is a simple step that could be included and updated on the SEA website with a link to the appropriate certification bodies (Elmhurst and Trustmark).

Quick fixes

We’d suggest four ways that the Green Homes Grant can be significantly reviewed with relatively little disruption:

  1. Extend the deadline for delivery under phase 1 to September 2021.
  2. Review PAS 2035 (which will soon replace PAS 2030:(2019) or work with a trade body like the Federation of Master Builders to develop an alternative quality standard that’s appropriate for local builders.
  3. Commit to a second round of funding to run over two to three years now and assign some of this to enabling local trades people to become Trustmark accredited.
  4. Allow householders to spend part of their grant on advice.

Ian Preston is Head of Household Energy Services at CSE.

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