A fifth of private tenants suffer from fuel poverty. So why are energy efficiency standards so soft on landlords?

A pensioner keeps warm in North Wales, 2008. Image: Getty.

There is a trend in the UK for more and more people to rent their homes, many from private landlords. Too often, these are cold, energy inefficient homes: over 280,000 homes in cities across the UK that do not meet minimum energy efficient standards.

However, this is soon set to change due to legislation that kicked in at the start of this April. The minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) will require homes in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) to meet a minimum energy efficiency standard. This is good news for the hundreds of thousands of tenants, who have little or no choice but to live in cold homes. 

It’s not all plain sailing, however. The regulations are currently too focused on the interests of landlords, who are able to exempt their properties from the regulations where improvements would mean an up-front cost. Instead, the regulations should be based on minimising the number of households living in substandard conditions – and the contribution that this policy can make to meeting fuel poverty targets.

The government recently consulted on changing the MEES regulations, with any changes coming into force in April 2019, and introduced the concept of a ‘cost cap’: if the improvements required cost any less than that cap, landlords would be expected to fund improvements. The consultation recommended that such a cap should be set at £2,500.

Yet this will result in less than half of the 280,000 worst properties (those with EPC ratings of F or G) receiving some form of energy saving improvement. In comparison, a cost cap of £5,000 would result in 93 per cent of F and G rated properties being improved. Using the lower cap, alongside the ability for landlords to apply for exemptions, weakens the huge potential that these standards could deliver. 

Some cities are moving to deliver retrofit programmes to improve the energy performance of homes in the PRS, and support the expansion of the energy efficiency industry to maximise activity across all tenures. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s (GMCA) Little Bill Programme was the largest Green Deal Communities Programme in England. The scheme, which was targeted at owner-occupied and privately rented homes, worked with over 1,200 households: residents saved, on average, £350 per year on their energy bills.


A call to action

The size of the private rented sector has increased by over 40 per cent in the last ten years, with these properties now accounting for a fifth of housing stock in England. It is widely accepted that this tenure will continue to expand.

And the result? Households living in the PRS have the highest prevalence of fuel poverty: 21.3 per cent compared to 7.4 per cent in the owner occupier sector. This rises to a staggering 45.7 per cent when focusing on F and G rated PRS properties.

Research highlights that cold related illnesses from privately rented F and G properties costs the NHS £35m per year, an estimate I would say is on the conservative side. (This study is based on BRE’s HHSRS cost calculator, which has since been updated, the PRS sector has grown and the English Housing Survey’s (EHS) latest statistics have shown that there has been a reduction in some hazards.)

Inaction to improve the energy performance of privately rented homes will leave thousands of tenants paying higher energy bills for years to come. Average annual energy savings from the government’s preferred cost cap of £2,500 would save a tenant £95 per year. The £5,000 cost cap option could save tenants £188 each year on average.

Increasing the energy efficiency of privately rented properties is therefore key to supporting fuel poverty and carbon reduction targets.  However, achieving this in the private rented sector has historically been challenging. It has long been recognised that minimum standards are key to achieving improvements in this sector.

A step-change in the implementation and enforcement of regulations and energy efficiency delivery is needed. This will establish a clear route map for upgrades, giving landlords and industry the confidence to plan ahead and invest for the future.

Investing in the energy performance of PRS properties can boost economic growth, reduce carbon emissions and support action to eradicate fuel poverty. The rewards of stepping up activity in this area are too good to miss.

Kelly Greer is research director at the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE).

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.