Insulate Britain and many politicians seem to think that the solution to the UK’s energy crisis is simply to insulate old housing stock. And, no doubt, many old properties could benefit from insulation – done well, in properties suitable for the correct type of insulation, and the benefits should be obvious.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and where public schemes with abundant money are involved, the result is often highly unsatisfactory.
Today I read a very recent report on the BBC websitei about problems of this nature in Wales. Not surprisingly, given that there is a massive push, not least by the BBC, for insulation to be seen as the answer to our prayers, the report was buried in the Wales section of the website and, so far as I can see, has received no prominence at all (clearly it’s much less important than, for example, “China’s Tencent restores Fight Club ending after backlash”, which is prominent on the BBC website at the moment).
Anyway, headed “Insulation work left Caerau residents with freezing rooms”, the report supplies us with a sorry story of funding from a local authority and energy companies to assist with insulation work ,ending up with things going spectacularly wrong:
The public funding aimed to make homes warmer and cut heating bills in Caerau, near Maesteg but has instead worsened the situation for residents.
Rhiannon Goodall, 38, said the insulation had “absolutely devastated” the home she shares with her husband Wayne and daughter Lili-May.
“The plaster is just falling off,” she told the BBC’s Politics Wales programme.
“My house feels like it’s falling down around me because of the amount of damp that it’s caused.
“The insulation that they have put on the outside is now causing so much water on the walls that the water has nowhere to go but inside.”
Damp started coming through into bedrooms at Julie Goodridge’s house after it was insulated.
“It’s freezing in there,” she said. “The bedrooms – I’ve never seen anything like it.”
On and on it goes – ruined homes and distraught residents. It’s going to cost a lot of money to put right. All because of this:
Insulation was fitted to 25 homes in Caerau as part of a £315,000 contract awarded by Bridgend council to a company called Green Renewable Wales (GRW). Most of the money came from the Welsh Government’s Arbed scheme, designed to make homes more energy efficient in the poorest parts of Wales.
If this was a one-off report of an isolated problem, then those shouting for insulation, insulation, insulation might, perhaps, be worth listening to. Unfortunately, such is not the case.
Here’s another BBC online reportii, this time from 2017: “Cavity wall insulation ‘a scandal’, Arfon MP claims”. It’s the same sorry story, but this time on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, as yesterday’s news illustrates, lessons rarely seem to be learned:
Inappropriate cavity wall insulation in homes has become “a scandal”, a Welsh MP has said.
Arfon MP Hywel Williams claimed millions of homes had the insulation installed by successive government-backed schemes which has led to damp, mould and condensation.
He called on the UK government to take responsibility for the “dreadful mess”.
In just three short paragraphs, we read of a scandal affecting (allegedly) millions of homes – a dreadful mess.
Or how about this from 2018? “Disastrous Preston retrofit scheme remains unresolved”iii. It is, it seems, the same old story:
A disastrous failed external insulation contract run under a government energy saving scheme has affected up to 390 homes in Preston with water penetration, mould and damp.
Four years on the problems, some of them severe, have only been rectified for some of the affected households. Occupants, many elderly and on low incomes, have in some cases reportedly been forced to pay for repairs themselves.
The installations in Preston took place under the Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP), which required energy companies to fund energy saving measures in disadvantaged communities. And although changes were made to subsequent government schemes, figures from Ofgem suggest that some installations carried out under the newer Energy Company Obligation (ECO) programme are continuing to fail.
Such is the scale of this shambles that there is even a websiteiv devoted to pursuing cavity wall insulation claims on behalf of those harmed by them. As usual, it will probably be the hard-pressed taxpayer picking up the tab.
Lack of ventilation, of course, is one of the problems associated with inappropriate insulation, leading to damp and related problems. For the past two years or so, however, ventilation has become increasingly important for another reason – coronavirus, covid-19, call it what you will.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the internet and media storm surrounding plans supposedly mooted by the Scottish SNP/Green government to cut the bottom off school doors to assist ventilation. Perhaps they’ve been massively exaggerated and seized upon unfairly by political opponents. Or perhaps another simplistic solution has been trotted out without sufficient thought and understanding of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Either way, this is how the Daily Record reported itv:
The Fire Brigades Union has demanded an urgent meeting with SNP ministers over concerns a controversial proposal to improve ventilation in schools could be unsafe.
It was revealed this week that councils would be handed extra cash from the Scottish Government in a bid to improve air flow in classrooms – a move considered vital to limit the spread of coronavirus among pupils.
Among the ideas was a plan to chop the bottoms off from doors in classrooms which have the highest CO2 readings – a proposal that has since been ridiculed.
In a letter to MSPs on Wednesday, education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said about 2,000 classes needed improved ventilation across Scotland, at an estimated cost of £4.3 million.
Air filters and mechanical fans, at a cost of £1.6 million and £2.4 million respectively, would be employed – along with £300,000 spent to “undercut” doors, which was seized on by opposition politicians.
Apart from the fact that insulation and ventilation don’t seem to be comfortable bedfellows, there is another, very basic but very important, point arising from all this. That is, people who peddle simplistic solutions should rarely be given much credence. Little in life is simple. When politicians announce that they are opening the cheque book, there will be people there ready to take advantage, and not all of them will do a thorough, professional job. The Law of Unintended Consequences is the one law that politicians cannot – indeed, do not need to – legislate for. It just is, hanging over their every pronouncement, waiting to strike, to undermine the best of intentions and to ensure that things will go wrong. Sadly, despite the number of laws they put on the statute book, this is the one law they never seem to understand.
By the way, do Scottish classrooms not have windows that can be opened?