We have to insulate Britain, but M25 protests don’t make the case for it | Gaby Hinsliff

We have to insulate Britain, but M25 protests don’t make the case for it | Gaby Hinsliff

We have to insulate Britain, but M25 protests don’t make the case for it

Gaby Hinsliff

No need to scream ‘Apocalypse!’ Showing we can make homes warmer and save cash is an easier way to bring people on board

Insulate Britain climate activists block M25 in Surrey, September 2021

Last modified on Fri 24 Sep 2021 09.33 EDT

If anything was going to make me well up in public, I never imagined it would be the joys of insulation. Loft lagging does not generally make the heart sing. People do not normally get choked up over cavity wall filling. But it turns out they probably should.

A few weeks ago someone showed me a film about a regeneration project to retrofit a social housing estate in Padiham, near Burnley, with green energy measures – and frankly, it would have melted a heart of stone.

The houses were draughty and mouldy, with elderly storage heaters that cost a fortune but still didn’t keep people warm. One woman’s heating bills were so high she was skipping meals so that her son didn’t go without. When the housing association-turned-developer Places for People promised to install solar panels, insulation and new windows, they were met with some suspicion. If you live in social housing, you’ve seen promises come and go.

But the film ended with residents marvelling at how much money they were saving every week (more than some are probably likely to lose this winter in universal credit, to put it in perspective) and how marvellous it was not to be huddled miserably under a duvet all day for warmth. Parents could now afford the occasional treat for their kids. Even the builders doing the work looked a bit emotional.

This column isn’t going to be a defence of Insulate Britain, the protesters currently dicing with death on the M25 to highlight demands that all social housing be retrospectively insulated in this way by 2025. If anything, it’s a column about how such tactics risk handing the moral high ground to cabinet ministers seeking injunctions against them, on behalf of people understandably distressed about ambulances getting stuck in gridlock, or the risk of serious casualties as protesters run into high-speed traffic.

Insulate Britain’s members are doubtless sincere in wanting people to wake up to looming disaster, but we’re arguably past the stage of wake-up calls and why-isn’t-this-leading-all-the-news-bulletins now; this is about as awake as we’re going to get.

One in four young people are thinking twice about having children because of global heating, according to a global poll published recently in the Lancet. Nearly half of voters say spending on preventing the climate crisis should be a priority even if that means cuts elsewhere, according to YouGov, which finds the environment ranking consistently in Britons’ top three concerns even during a pandemic. Anyone still choosing not to take it seriously by this point isn’t going to change their mind because a protest made them late for work.

Institutions of all kinds – including government departments, with the prime minister visibly scrabbling for ideas to make this autumn’s Cop26 summit shine – are genuinely anxious to respond. What’s needed now isn’t people willing to lie down in the fast lane so much as planners and managers and technical experts; people with innovative ideas for raising the money, not to mention rapidly training the workforce required. You might call it the unheroic stage, except that in its own quiet way there’s something very heroic about plugging away at a not very well-paid or glamorous job that ultimately changes lives.

Insulating the houses of people who can’t afford to do it themselves isn’t the sexiest green idea on the table. But it’s one of the few that doesn’t deprive people of something they enjoy, or rely on some technology not yet invented; that creates new jobs without destroying old industries; and demonstrably saves money for people in circumstances where every penny counts. And without it there’s little point in removing gas boilers, since greener replacements such as air-source heat pumps work best in well-insulated homes.

Selling the idea to politicians is actually relatively easy, although getting the money out of the Treasury is another matter. While everyone in housing knows this has to be done, it remains hard to see how, unless the autumn spending review turns out to be unexpectedly generous. (The money for the Padiham project came from the EU, should you wish to add that to the long list of things not mentioned on the side of a referendum bus.) It’s the drudge work of actually making it happen now that matters.

Talk to staff who actually work with housing association residents and you’ll hear of the many people reluctant to have their boilers ripped out in return for technology they don’t necessarily trust. If you lack the power or the money to fix what some faceless authority has screwed up, as social housing tenants often do, then change can become something to be feared. For them, “But the planet is burning!” is a far less effective message than “This will be cheaper, and warmer.”

Similarly, shouting, “Apocalypse now” isn’t always as politically effective as it sounds. Fear is paralysing, so much so that some people tune out at the very mention of climate. The scale of it all can feel overwhelming, and in the middle of a deadly pandemic there’s perhaps only so much gloom people can take.

What the climate story needs now is hope and joy, and a recognition that both of these might be found in unexpected places. As the kids say, not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they turn out to be simply carrying clipboards, wearing hard hats and bringing the warmth inside.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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