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Local experts condemn Sunak’s draughty homes U-turn as likely to cost lives

Last week, the government announced it would not be raising the minimum energy efficiency standards of privately rented properties – which will leave thousands of renters living in cold homes.

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Rishi Sunak’s decision to not raise the minimum energy efficiency standards for privately rented housing will cost Bristol renters’ lives, according to a local energy expert. 

As part of a shocking U-turn on key net zero policies last week, the prime minister said proposals to raise the minimum energy efficiency rating in the private rented housing sector from E to C would be scrapped. 

EPCs, graded from A to G, measure a property’s energy efficiency by looking at how well it is insulated, glazed and heated.

This is yet another blow for private renters, who in the midst of an energy crisis will face higher bills in years to come – while landlords are let off the hook from insulating the properties they own. 

The Cable revealed earlier this year that more than half of private rental homes in Bristol are rated below EPC band C. Data analysis by the BBC Shared Data unit found 57% of properties inspected between 2018 and 2022 were rated below a C, which was though an improvement on the 72% inspected between 2013 and 2017. 

It is currently illegal for landlords to let domestic properties to new or existing tenants with an EPC rating below band E, unless a valid exemption applies. In 2020, the government proposed raising this minimum legal rating to C. 

As of last year, the council estimated that around 30,000 Bristol households – or almost one in six – were living in fuel poverty, but with the cost of living crisis continuing to bite this is likely even higher now.

‘Hard to overestimate importance of a warm home’

Mike Andrews is CEO of the CHEESE Project, a Bristol-based social enterprise that conducts energy surveys on people’s homes to help them make them more energy efficient. 

“Before the energy and cost of living crises about one in 10 households in Bristol were living in fuel poverty. Now it is reported that one in five are struggling to make ends meet,” he told the Cable.

“It is difficult to overestimate the importance of a warm home – cold homes kill – so Sunak’s U-turn that he is letting private landlords off the requirement to upgrade to decent, healthy homes will cost lives,” he added.

Analysis earlier this year by ITV showed that of 13,400 excess deaths between December 2021 and March 2022, 4,020 – equivalent to one in three – were caused by the impact of cold homes.

“At CHEESE we see the appalling state of some private-sector rental housing, and the government’s efforts to remedy this have mostly failed,” Andrews added

Ian Preston, director of household energy at the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), told the Cable: “It’s fair to say, like the majority of people in the energy and housing space, we were pretty disappointed to listen to the prime minister’s speech.”

He took particular exception to Sunak saying the U-turn represented easing the burden on working people from net-zero policies. 

“Decent standards for private rented homes that keep people warm and safe  don’t feel like a burden for working people,” Preston said. “They feel like a basic right and necessity.”

“Bristol currently has 30,000 privately rented homes that are EPC band D or E. Failing to implement the changes to Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards they consulted on is effectively condemning these tenants to live in a home that’s not thermally efficient,” he added.

“That has a negative impact on their physical and mental wellbeing – the recent Warm Home Prescription pilot has shown that a warm home reduces GP visits. The prime minister obviously thinks unhealthy cold homes aren’t a burden on working people.

So how can we make our homes more energy efficient?

Not only will the government U-turn hit the pockets of renters, but also make it harder for cities like Bristol to reduce carbon emissions by retrofitting homes and driving up energy efficiency. With 14% of all UK carbon emissions coming from homes, making them more energy efficient is a straightforward way to reduce our impact on climate change.

In December 2022, the council approved City Leap, a multi-million pound project to transform how Bristol generates, distributes, stores and uses energy which will include insulating homes and installing heat pumps.

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Over the next five years, nearly £500m is due to go into low-carbon energy infrastructure, such as solar, wind, heat networks, heat pumps and energy efficiency measures.

Part of this will be around £22m of energy efficiency measures. So far, a £11m Bright Green Homes scheme has been launched, which will give 500 households on lower incomes or in the most deprived parts of the city funding to install insulation and low-carbon technologies in their homes.

There is also a free advice service run by the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) called Retrofit West Advice that helps you plan how to retrofit your home, find contractors and manage the project. 

Preston says it’s important to speak up if your home is already breaching minimum standards. 

“If you live in a property that has an EPC rating that’s F or G then your landlord has a duty to improve this to an E,” he said. “The challenge is holding them to account – which is often tricky when tenants don’t want to upset their landlord and then find themselves looking for new accommodation.

Andrews added that it’s a common misconception that energy efficiency is very expensive. 

“Yes, to deep-retrofit a terrace home in Manchester cost £45k back in 2020. External wall insulation would take decades to pay back its costs,” he said. “But there are plenty of low-cost DIY-style ‘first retrofit’ things you can do like draught-busting.” 

CHEESE’s internal thermal surveys use pressure-reduction to show up draughts, missing insulation and construction faults.

Andrews said these can then be tackled for as little as £100 with an immediate return in comfort and warmth, and that tenants can carry out the works because the remedies are not structural. As a non-profit community-based CIC, CHEESE has some grant-aided free thermal surveys for people in cold homes on low incomes, he added.

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