Amid the uncertainty, there is one bit of good news to brighten the end of September. The Government have launched a new scheme that provides £2 billion of funding to improve the energy efficiency of homes across England. But will this early Christmas present help keep older people warm and well this winter?
Green Homes Grants
The UK has the oldest housing stock in the European Union, with 38% built pre-1946, 20 years before the first regulation that required new homes to meet certain standards for efficiency. The Green Homes Grants have been designed to hit the triple whammy of benefits that energy efficiency brings – improving health by keeping people warm, reducing money spent on fuel bills, and helping the environment by reducing the amount of energy used.
A helpful voucher
People can apply for a voucher of up to £5,000 worth of work, of which they will pay a third or less. Those on low incomes who receive qualifying benefits can get up to £10,000 worth of work and will not have to pay anything. Councils will also be able to refer people for help and we hope they will work with organisations like Age UK to see where funding can be best spent. Local champions that know their communities best can help direct support to where it is most needed.
The vouchers can be used to install home insulation or low carbon heating measures like heat pumps and solar thermal panels. They can also be used to pay for double glazing and simpler efficiency measures like draught proofing. Applications are online only and further advice is available to help check eligibility, what improvements are suitable for your home, and to find tradespeople to carry out the work.
Hopes and fears
We hope the grants will go some way to improving the lives of the million older people in England living in fuel poverty. Retired households have the highest average fuel costs compared to those of other ages. Many also live with health conditions that require more heating or energy. Covid has exposed how vulnerable those with respiratory conditions can be, the same conditions that are caused and exacerbated by cold and damp homes. The next six months will see most of us spend longer at home, so it is vital that those with the greatest needs are as comfortable as possible.
However, there are some concerns about the scheme and the timescales for delivery during a pandemic and likely further lockdown restrictions. Whilst work can begin this autumn, people are likely to have concerns about the disruption to their home over the colder months particularly if anyone living there is vulnerable to coronavirus and needs to be shielded. We hope that the Government will extend the period for work to be completed from the end of March 2021.
This short window for completion may also make it harder to get skilled and experienced tradespeople. Those carrying out work must be accredited to ensure the installations are of high quality. Many may be booked up on other jobs given the backlog of work from earlier in the year. There is also the danger of scams linked to the grants and people being mis-sold or overcharged. Ultimately decisions will have to be made about whether possible short-term inconvenience can be offset by the likely lasting benefits that a more efficient and warmer home will bring.
We hope this announcement is the first of several initiatives to improve the homes of vulnerable and fuel poor older people. The Government’s 2019 election manifesto promised £9.2 billion of funding for energy efficiency programmes over ten years. The Green Homes Grants is the first scheme to be announced as we wait for news of planned improvements to social housing and public buildings like schools and hospitals.
The Age UK network already does amazing work helping older people across the country maximise their income, reduce their energy bills and make their homes warmer. The next 6 months are likely to be challenging but green shoots can grow to keep older people warm and well this winter.