Peter Apps

The dark side of ‘insulating Britain’

The dark side of ‘insulating Britain’
(Photo: iStock)
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Let me start with some statements of fact. The planet is heating up dangerously fast with devastating consequences for everyone that lives on it and if we don’t stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere we have no future as a species.

In the UK, a major source of our carbon emissions comes from homes and a large part of that is because we burn gas whenever we put the radiators on. Each UK household emits around 2.7 tonnes of carbon every year heating their home. That’s utterly unsustainable and must stop.

To some the answer is to insulate our homes so tightly that we no longer need to use much energy heating them, if any at all. Insulate Britain, for example, have demanded that the government insulate all social housing by 2025 and retrofit all homes with insulation by 2030. This sounds neat and simple. But it is not.

Over the last two decades we have put a large amount of energy and money into insulation projects. Building regulations have demanded higher standards of thermal performance and various government funding streams have offered money to carry out home insulation projects. The results are not all positive.

Many people have been affected by damp as a result. If a cavity wall insulation system is installed badly, the walls not properly maintained, or the home insufficiently ventilated, the result is condensation, mould and damp.

The Cavity Insulation Victims Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of people across the country who have been left in cold, mouldy homes as a result of insulation failures, has gathered evidence on the impact of poorly-installed insulation, and the evidence it has compiled is worth paying attention to.

In one of the only major studies carried out looking at the real-world success of installation projects, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive reviewed 825 homes in 2019 which had cavity wall insulation installed. Two thirds (63 per cent) were non-compliant, 84 per cent were not being adequately maintained and 32 per cent required remediation.

There are also problems with heat. If improperly installed, insulation can contribute to homes overheating in summer – something which can have deadly consequences in the heatwaves which will become more frequent as we head towards a hotter world.

Finally, there is the question of fire. Grenfell Tower was fitted with tonnes of plastic insulation which released cyanide gas when it burned. This insulation product fixed to the tower’s walls was specifically selected because the refurbishment set an ‘aspirational’ standard for the thermal performance of the building. As we know, Grenfell was not a one off. Combustible insulation products line the walls of high-rise buildings up and down the country and leaseholders face financial ruin to pay for their removal.

The inquiry into Grenfell has exposed the horrendous hidden story of how these insulation products made it to market. Kingspan – which made a small amount of the insulation on the tower – carried out a fire test which showed a system containing its product burning like a ‘raging inferno’ in 2007. It never told the market about this and continued to advertise the product for use on high rise buildings.

It also threatened to sue organisations who questioned the fire safety of its insulation. When a consultancy questioned the adequacy of its fire testing in 2009, one senior manager wrote internally that the firm could ‘go fuck themselves and if they are not careful we will sue the arse of them [sic]’. (Kingspan has since apologised for its behaviour before Grenfell, says historic fire tests have been repeated and argues none of its shortcomings caused the Grenfell Tower fire.)

Celotex, which made the majority of the insulation installed on Grenfell, passed a critical fire test in May 2014 with the help of additional fire barriers it placed close to temperature monitors. It omitted to mention this in its official report of the test and subsequent certification. (Celotex has subsequently emphasised that it reran its test after Grenfell without the fire barriers and still obtained a pass.)

Both of these firms have also been actively involved in lobbying the government. Celotex, for example, ran an ‘insulating Britain’ campaign in the early 2010s, touring the country with a giant pink bus which encouraged builders to buy its insulation to meet new government standards.

Kingspan, meanwhile, pushed strongly after Grenfell to avoid a ban on combustible insulation being introduced for high rise buildings. One of its senior managers denied that the firm was ‘doing its best to ensure science was secretly perverted for financial gain’ when he was questioned at the inquiry in March.

Insulation companies are large, powerful, have deep pockets and are good at lobbying. As Rob Warren, a former technical director at Celotex, told a trade publication in the years before Grenfell, sales were highly reliant on government regulations. ‘You cannot give insulation away and the public are not really interested,’ he said.

None of this is to say we should not insulate our homes. The current technology we have will not let us move to a non-carbon heating source without a decent level of thermal performance. Some 60 per cent of our homes do not have an Energy Performance Certificate rating of C. They will need better insulation if they are to be taken off gas.

But we must tread carefully. We must speak honestly about what can go wrong and be alive to the fact that there are major corporate interests pushing this agenda.

That means we need transparency about the way insulation is tested, proper fire regulation, tough oversight of its implementation, consequences for failure and redress for consumers who are let down.

At the moment, none of that is in place. Unless this is implemented quickly, the government will end up repeating the mistakes of the past as it works to implement its net zero plans.