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Ireland’s one-stop shops show path to greener UK homes

An unusual group of UK visitors flew to Ireland’s west coast earlier this year to see a new attraction — a one-year-old chain of one-stop shops.

The ‘shops’ have little to do with retail: they organise building work by accredited contractors and give out state subsidies for homeowners to retrofit — or equip existing homes — with heat pumps, solar panels and insulation, cutting their energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Launched days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022 caused electricity and natural gas prices in western Europe to skyrocket, the scheme could not have been more timely.

The British party had been invited to Ireland by Matthew Tulley, a UK climate activist who, as I discovered during the trip, had been arrested for gluing his face to Bishopsgate in the City of London back in 2021.

The retired businessman got in touch after I wrote an FT column on my own campaign to ease UK curbs on the retrofitting of listed and conservation-area homes in north London.

As Britain’s once truly world-beating carbon policymaking has come to resemble a Potemkin village of grand-sounding promises with little substance, the British visitors found much to envy in Ireland.

Twelve One Stop Shops (OSS) dotted around Ireland are either main-contractors in their own right or organise “subbies” (subcontractors) to do the work to standards set and audited by a regulator called the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

They offer three elements that are currently missing from the UK retrofitting landscape: clear standards of what’s allowed and how to do it; financial support for those who cannot afford changes on their own; and reassurance on whom to hire so the work is done properly.

Homeowners typically receive up to half the cost as subsidy, though that percentage has fallen to 40 per cent because of inflation. The poorest households do not pay anything.

The programme’s target is to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030 — or close to 30 per cent of Ireland’s housing stock — to a Building Energy Rating of B2, the rough equivalent of a UK energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of B. A UK target to require all new rentals to carry a C rating first mooted for 2025 still has no firm deadline or legal standing.

Having kick-started what he describes as the Irish system’s 10-year evolution — “I was the guy who was crawling around attics [to insulate them]” in a 2016 pilot scheme in county Tipperary — Paul Kenny is now adviser to Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s Green party energy minister.

“The most important part of this is an individual saying, ‘I’d like to take climate action but I want to be certain I will get what I paid for, that I am not doing the wrong thing and that my house won’t be damaged’,” declares Kenny. “People need to have certainty and everything should be measured by the ease of the customer journey and the C02 phase out.”

The money comes from a ringfenced 55 per cent of revenues from Ireland’s carbon levy on fuel including gas, coal, oil, diesel and peat. Now at €48.50 a tonne, this tax is set to rise every year by €7.50 a tonne under a three-party coalition agreement. The UK froze its non-ringfenced fuel duty for 13 years before cutting it last year.

Even when money is available as it has been in Ireland, a shortage of skills affects both sides of the Irish Sea. In spite of an 80 per cent increase in retrofits last year, the SEAI still had budget left over, mainly because of a lack of staff to meet demand.

While Ireland’s energy minister tells school children that if they “want to be a climate activist they should learn to install heat pumps”, Kenny believes that “when people see a steady career ahead that won’t go through boom and bust, more people will go into those roles, especially with the help of expanded training”.

Another problem is a lack of public awareness of what’s on offer, admits Caroline Ashe Brady, chief executive of Kore Retrofit, the first OSS to be registered, based in county Cavan bordering on Northern Ireland, where it also bids for work.

While some homeowners can’t afford the work even with subsidies, others miss out on grants for more than a single carbon-mitigating measure because a contractor might not tell them about the availability of a suite of grants available from an OSS. “It’s not malice but a lack of time to stop and tell the client an alternative route exists that will also still generate leads for the contractor,” she says. “It’s our job to take pain away from industry and convince them the process will be easy.” Still, she says the government seems focused on removing obstacles.

The continuous tweaking of the Irish system is in sharp contrast to the UK’s stop-start approach. The UK’s last universal retrofitting programme, the Green Homes Grant, was pulled six months after its launch but not before the government had spent £50mn on US contractors, who lacked any previous UK expertise, to run the subsidy scheme. Also to blame, says the National Audit Office, were conflicting Treasury and energy department objectives and a cumbersome registration process for contractors to participate.

Andrew Warren, chair of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, points out that the UK’s chequered history has even included one-stop shops — back in the 1990s when John Major was prime minister.

Given all its experience and expertise, there’s no need for the UK to reinvent the wheel. All it needs to do — under this government or the next — is to start rolling and not stop.

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