Smart homes could cut energy bills and emissions – but they'll never take off in this renters' economy

A smart thermostat. Image: Quby.

A couple of months ago, I went to a presentation about a smart thermostat making waves in the Netherlands. The company, Quby, works with energy providers to install a tablet-like control panel in your house, and thereby see and control exactly how much energy you’re using at different times. Customers pay a small subscription fee, but tend to make the money back through reduced heating and electricity bills.

Around the world, similar products are appearing in the market, promising both an end to the hours spent wrestling with your boiler's timer settings, and the possibility of saving energy and money by directly controlling your thermostat through your smartphone.

As with fitness trackers, this ability to track your use should encourage customers to cut down in order to beat their own targets. No more leaving your heating on during a weekend away; no more letting idle chragers seep electricity unnoticed. Good for the world. Good for wallets. 

But even as I heard the long list of benefits, it was hard to get excited. This is because I, like around 50 per cent of Londoners and 18 per cent of UK households, rent my home. In the decade to 2011, the proportion of renters increased in every single English region.

My house is owned by a small agency, and they’re pretty good with repairs and upkeep – but they've taken three months to replace curtains they mysteriously removed back in November. I'm not sure they're chomping at the bit to install a smart thermostat.

The Quby representatives told me that, while they’re hoping to launch in the UK in 2016, they didn’t encounter anything like the UK’s private rental market in the Netherlands: there, people either own, or their homes are managed by companies who may see this kind of technology as a selling point. A UK landlord probably doesn’t care how high your bills are, knows they’ll find a tenant no matter what, and thinks you’d break anything with the word “smart” in its name anyway.

This goes for other home improvement measures, too. The London Borough of Haringey offers a grant of up to £6,000 for tenants or owners looking to improve the energy efficiency of their home, by, say, installing new insulation. But even if your landlord gave consent to this, the fleeting length of tenancies mean you would be taking a gamble on an improvement whose benefits you’d may never actually see.

The average tenancy rate in the UK is increasing, and last summer reached an average  2.7 years. But this is still a relatively short amount of time – and it's by no means guaranteed by most contracts.

The Labour manifesto at the last election (may it rest in peace) proposed that three-year tenancy contracts should become the norm, and landlords should have a higher burden of proof if they want to turf you out before the contract is up. In contrast, this government is determined to allow everyone to own through Help to Buy – but it’ll take a long time to turn us back into a nation of owners, if it ever succeeds at all. For those without a despoit-sized chunk of money, renting remains the only option. 

In the meantime, there are no efforts to improve tenants' lot, which is having a knock-on effect on the quality of housing, especially in terms of energy usage. It’s hard to care about insulation in a house you don’t live in, especially if you’re a single-property landlord struggling to repay your own debts.

Housing accounted for more than a quarter of the UK’s energy consumption in 2012 – more than both industry and transport: 

Source: Housing Energy Fact File, 2013.

As a government report noted in 2013, “it will be impossible [to meet the 2008 Climate Act’s emissions targets] without changing emissions from homes”. But it will also be impossible to tackle this problem while the rental market remains unstable and under-regulated.

There’s a wider point, too, which goes beyond fancy energy-saving devices: short-term renting discourages its participants from putting down roots in communities, or the houses they live in. This has an impact on everything from civic-mindedness (“Is it Islington I live in now? It’s hard to keep track”) to energy use and education.

Perhaps it's time Cameron acknowledges the renting economy and its problems, rather than pretending renting is still a necessary state of purgatory before you buy your real home.  


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.