Cornwall faces cold homes pandemic

© Copyright Martin Bodman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Despite its mild winters, Cornwall has among the highest levels of cold homes and fuel poverty in the UK, forcing many people to choose between heating their homes, and eating. The Government’s £2bn Green Homes Grant scheme, which aims to insulate up to 650,000 homes and create 140,000 jobs across the UK, launches this month. But is this enough, and what will it take to bring Cornish homes up to liveable standards, fit for the future?

The UK is the ‘cold man of Europe’ due to having Europe’s worst housing stock. This causes severe health and social problems, including 9,700 excess winter deaths attributable to cold homes each year. Already, one-third of the British public are fearful of the health impacts of living in a cold home, according to a YouGov poll for National Energy Action (NEA). No wonder the chancellor is throwing money at the issue.

I spoke with Tim Jones, Chief Executive of Truro-based social enterprise Community Energy Plus (CEP), which provides energy advice to Cornish homes and businesses. Tim is currently fielding more calls than normal from people worried about heating their homes this winter, and is understandably very concerned about this.

He explained that levels of household debt are very high this year following the lockdown. Combined with the end of the furlough scheme, this will leave many people with nothing at all to pay their bills this winter. And there isn’t enough money left in the system to support people who need it after ten years of austerity.

Although Tim welcomes the announcement of the Green Homes Grant scheme and recommends people apply for funding, there are still many unanswered questions about its effectiveness and implementation.

Cold homes are typically a symptom of poor insulation and inefficient heating systems, but if the following three factors combine, a household can fall into ‘fuel poverty’ – where a household’s fuel costs are above average and meeting the full cost, would push them below the official poverty line:

  • Low wages. Cornish wages are well below average, reflecting a high proportion of precarious seasonal hospitality work.
  • High energy costs. There is very poor natural gas coverage in Cornwall, especially in rural areas where people have to use heating oil or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) bought in advance and in bulk at extra cost – typically a 500-litre minimum order. Many people have limited ability to set up direct debits or shop around for cheaper deals.
  • Inefficient housing. Cornwall has a legacy of old, solid-walled houses – full of character but very costly to heat. A report identifying the most fuel inefficient houses of the 573 parliamentary constituencies in England and Wales found that all Cornish constituencies fall into the bottom 23, with the St Ives constituency coming a chilly third from last.

The latest data shows 12.6 per cent of Cornwall’s households suffering fuel poverty, compared to a South West average of 9.4 per cent. That’s a staggering 31,828 Cornish households that can’t afford to heat their homes. For perspective, there are only 10,071 homes in the whole of Truro.

The human cost of cold homes is tragic and includes depression and increased deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as high blood pressure causing higher rates of heart conditions and strokes. Children growing up in a cold home are more than twice as likely to get bronchitis or asthma, and it can also exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and there’s increasing evidence of links to increased susceptibility to Covid-19. It was fortunate that the first wave of the pandemic struck during mild spring temperatures, but the prospect of a second wave this winter doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cold homes also badly affect children’s ability to learn, and job seekers’ ability to effectively seek work, leading to a vicious cycle of reduced lifetime opportunities.

There are also obvious climate change impacts from cold homes that need more energy to heat. Housing accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s climate change emissions, so investment in energy efficiency is urgently needed if the government is to have any chance of reaching its carbon net zero target by 2050.

Quite how this is going to happen is far from clear, especially now that earlier government schemes that funded an established insulation industry have been all but destroyed by austerity. The skills shortage is already so acute that CEP often have to call in insulation companies from outside Cornwall because the required skills have been lost here. Will local traders get their share of funding, or will corporations get the lion’s share of it? Lack of trained people also makes it harder to avoid ‘cowboy’ installers putting in bodged installations that create ongoing problems – often very expensive to put right.

Improving the quality of a home is a complex process needing to take the whole house into account, but the Green Homes Grant only covers a small number of improvements – and some of these can actually hinder effective overall home improvements. Cornwall has big problems with damp, condensation, and radon gas that can cause lung cancer. All of these can be exacerbated by increasing the air-tightness of buildings through improved insulation alone, making it vital to improve heating and ventilation alongside insulation.

In CEP’s experience, roughly £10,000 is needed to externally insulate a typical two-bedroom semi-detached house. To bring homes with the lowest energy performance certificate (EPC) grades of F or G up to grade E has cost between £30,000 and £40,000 per house, including heating and ventilation. With around 37,000 such properties in Cornwall, the cost of bringing them all up even to grade E could be over a billion pounds. And with the government offering only £5,000 to privately-owned houses and £10,000 to qualifying low-income households, it can hardly be considered to be making an effective or meaningful investment in warmer homes.

Other countries offer examples of forward-thinking projects, such as the Dutch Energiesprong project, which provides a modular whole house retrofit system to convert social housing to carbon net-zero standards, funded through reduced bills and maintenance costs over 30 years. Its UK offshoot has so far replicated the Dutch model for £75,000 per house.

Earlier this year Cornwall Council successfully bid for the ‘whole house retrofit’ pilot scheme to provide comprehensive home upgrades reducing carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent for over 80 social houses, at around £50,000 per house.

These small-scale projects offer a glimpse of how joined-up, long-term planning can cost-effectively improve our homes at a scale corresponding to the crisis we face. But if the government is serious about treating cold homes, then the groundwork needs to be started now. It would provide long-term, meaningful and well-paid work for local people, reduce poverty through lower energy bills, count towards the UK’s climate targets, and reduce pressure on the NHS from fewer hospital trips. Not to mention the improved quality of life for thousands of people. A win-win for everyone, in fact.

Whilst the Green Homes Grant scheme is better than nothing, it is an enormous missed opportunity. After a summer of over-tourism and the low-paid, precarious work it provides, Cornwall now faces the prospect of mass unemployment and, for many thousands of people, the inability to heat and live safely in their own homes through the winter.

A better future is possible.

If you’re in Cornwall and worried about paying your bills or have questions about appliances, efficiency, smart meters or the Green Homes Grant scheme, you can contact CEP by phoning 0800 954 1956 or emailing