The UK's needs an army of 'retrofit technicians' to reach net zero

Ministers must urgently address a growing green chasm skills in the home retrofit sector that threatens to derail the UK’s decarbonisation agenda, argues the CSE’s Ian Preston

In light of the current eye-watering steep increases in the cost of heating, the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), wrote to the UK government earlier this year demanding urgent action to reduce the energy consumption of UK homes.

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)’s reply back to the trade association was very telling. The minister duly repeated the government’s position, namely that he wants to see an expansion of the retrofit sector and is looking at ways of encouraging people to make home improvements or install retrofit measures like wall insulation and heat pumps.

What leapt out at me was the absence of three words: training, skills, jobs.

This is beyond frustrating.

As the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) and other organizations have repeatedly told the government, the sticking point is not at the household, or demand, end of the chain but at the service, or supply, end. Until this message gets through, the current retrofit car crash will only get worse. (We wrote something similar to last Autumn. I’m going to have to start shouting louder now.)

There simply aren’t enough skilled or qualified people to do the work across all trades and roles. Not enough builders. Not enough electricians. Not enough heating engineers. Not enough heat pump installers. Not enough joiners, plasterers, retrofit surveyors and energy assessors.

And in these circumstances, stocking the fires of consumer demand will simply drive prices up and frustrate homeowners. This is exactly what happened with the Green Homes Grant in 2021. This £1.5bn program was abandoned just six months after its launch, after it had upgraded a mere 47,500 homes out of the originally planned 600,000. The Public Accounts Committee said the scheme had underperformed badly and risked damaging future efforts to deliver net zero.

The Green Deal, which preceded the Green Homes Grant debacle, was similarly disastrous.

The government needs to understand that pouring money into the supply chain via short-term grants will not translate to business growth, but instead create demand from householders that can’t be met.

This is tricky, because that approach has succeeded in the past, for example with electric cars and solar panels, where generous grants stimulated both supply and demand – however, both these industries are very different from the retrofit sector, where thousands of medium, small and micro businesses supply the market with scores of different trades, from plumbers to ventilation fitters.

And most of them, by and large, have plenty of work. They certainly have little appetite for investing in training or taking on apprentices to service a potentially temporary demand generated by a government scheme that could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

So we’re staring into a skills gap – or more accurately, a skills chasm. It is this issue that the government needs to urgently address.

What we need now is a skills and business development strategy that creates an army of ‘retrofit technicians’ – the skilled builders we need to meet the net zero challenge. This must come from central government, but local government can help too.

We must also redouble our efforts to make learning a trade an attractive option for a broad range of school leavers. I have a vision of thousands of enthusiastic young people leaving school and training up to be joiners, plasterers, retrofit assessors and so on. Without this, the chances of the market responding in the way government expectations – money-in-growth-out – are vanishingly slim.

 

Ian Preston is director of household services at the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE), a member organization of the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE)

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