Net zero and fire safety, the costs are off the scale: What do we do? | News

Net zero and fire safety, the costs are off the scale: What do we do?

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO

Glasgow is, as we all know, the centre of the universe. Next winter the city is hosting the UN climate change summit. What an accolade! Of course you do get protests of one type or another at these events. Luckily, our always vigilant police are on the case to stamp these out.  What’s the first task? Yes, the chief constable has already hauled the ultras of Rangers and Celtic into his office to tell them that they must lob only zero emission pyrotechnics at each other. Don’t hold your breath!

But climate change isn’t just a headache for Scotland’s police. You can see from the Queen’s Speech that Boris is on the case. And he will want to make some big statements in Glasgow to show he is well ahead of the rest of the world, or at the very least Nicola. 

What’s coming next? You can get a few clues from the paper on stress testing for climate change that the Bank of England has just issued. The Bank wants to run these tests in 2021 so it’s working out how to go about it now. We can learn a lot from this paper.

The Bank says we need to look at two sorts of risks. 

There are physical risks such as flooding. Did you know that 10% of mortgage exposures are on properties in flood risk zones? How many of your homes are at risk from flooding? What are you going to do about this?

Then there are transition risks as we move towards net zero by 2050. That’s the cost of replacing gas heating in your homes. The Committee on Climate Change says it’ll cost £15 billion a year to switch to low carbon heating across all the homes in the UK. Have you worked out the costs for you? It’s far from easy as no one knows exactly what systems you should use instead. We’re seeing chunky bills for moving to ground source heat pumps. These might not be right for everyone. Our new eco homes are certainly hitting teething problems. We can’t seem to build them in line with the specifications. And sometimes the features just don’t work as planned in real life. Of course we will solve these problems and get it right. But when?

As you will know from Brexit, the Bank prefers an orderly change to a disorderly one whenever possible. That means the sooner we can hit on the right way to get carbon out of homes the better. It gives us time to plan. The nightmare scenario is an expensive rush to meet the deadline. Or worse, going down one road and then having to try another at the last minute. And that’s a real danger, I’m sorry to say.

Some experts think hydrogen is the answer. But they can’t agree on where we should get it from and how we should supply it to homes. Can we send it through our gas networks? Will hydrogen turn out to be any safer than gas? We need answers to these and other questions. 

The Bank says it’ll run the stress tests in 2021 and I expect that the RSH will follow suit. To be fair, the Bank recognises that modelling in this area is in its infancy so this will be a learning exercise. That’s fine but we need to learn fast in housing. 

An HQN survey found that three quarters of respondents felt their organisation wasn’t doing enough to cut emissions.  Only half had a climate change strategy and four in ten had set no targets for future emissions. We must do better. 

Here are some of the questions I’d expect you to be working on:

-How many of our homes are at risk of flooding? What can we do about this? How much will it cost?

-How many of our homes have gas heating? What are the options for cutting emissions by replacing these? What’s the bill for fixing this? When do we pay it?

-How many of your homes are in places that exceed the legal limits for air pollution? What are you doing about this? Are you building more homes in toxic areas? Why?

In some ways we’re hitting the so-called perfect storm. The costs of cutting emissions are biting at the same time as those for improving fire safety. What’s the answer?

We’ve been here before. When we needed to spend a lot of money in the past, government gave us a way out through stock transfer or ALMOs. What can we do this time?

By my reckoning it could be more serious than before. Chiefs of the big London associations are telling me that they may have to sell off Georgian and Victorian homes, as you just can’t sort out emissions and fire safety at any reasonable price. The costs are off the scale. Did you ever imagine that some of the finest homes in England, if not the world, would end up being liabilities? Nope, neither did I. It’s time to get our thinking caps on.