We need joined up thinking to combat climate change and poverty

Possible war in Ukraine.  The resignation of a Cressida Dick.  The interminable saga of when, exactly, Boris Johnson’s MPs will topple him.  Liz Truss’s flood of taxpayer-funded photo-ops. 

All political stories, but none comes close to relevance of the cost of living crisis.  The cost of your groceries, fuel bills, rent and rapidly dwindling savings has an immediacy beyond the news bulletins.  The drag of poverty is as urgent as the climate crisis, and it causes long-term scarring to our whole society.  They are aspects of the same problem – an economic system that thinks making a profit is divorced from the social and environmental impact it causes.  In the end, someone has to pay.  And the burden never seems to fall on the mega-rich. 

The Government, unsurprisingly, isn’t joined-up in this.  To give just one example, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has a scheme encouraging people to save energy.  Called the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive, it encourages households to install a heat-pump.  This month, the BEIS select committee published a report called Decarbonising Heat in Homes. It calls on the Government to help householders financially.  

Most of us followed the lockdown rules – with some famous party exceptions – so work like installing heat pumps was delayed.  Now time is almost running out to get the work completed and become eligible for the payments – but BEIS hasn’t extended the deadline. So people are paying out shedloads of money, with the best of green intentions, while the Government sits and watches them.  Undermining its own policy.  It’s like living in a Kafka novel. 

Government could take action. But so far it hasn’t. What’s worse is this kind of incoherence is so commonplace, no one is surprised. 

A few years ago, North East based social housing organisation Gentoo published a report about ‘Boilers On Prescription’.  The idea was that warmer homes lead to other positive effects.  They launched a pilot scheme to gather evidence.  They worked with local GPs to ‘prescribe’ a housing retrofit for patients with health conditions associated with cold damp homes.  They fitted double glazing, insulated walls and lofts, and installed energy efficient heating systems.  The results were astonishing.

Customer after customer reported a positive effect on their health, and their family’s health. Retrofitting produced the energy and financial savings that Gentoo was hoping for – a 25% reduction in carbon emissions, and a £125 average reduction in annual fuel bills.  Homes were warmer, despite using less fuel. 

But crucially, it reduced emergency hospital admissions.  It reduced emergency re-admissions. It reduced visits to GP surgeries, and GP call-outs.  It improved patients’ self-care and sustainability. It improved the quality of life for people with long-term health conditions. It increased the life expectancy of the local population.  And since an emergency hospital admission costs £2,500, it saved the NHS a fortune. 

Win. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

I raise these questions with ministers and government officials.  The need to join up policy.  How tackling poor housing improves health, reduces carbon emissions, saves the NHS money, and creates jobs all at the same time.  I even wrote a detailed policy paper, showing where the money can come from (Google Jamie Driscoll, Regional Wealth Generation).  But it’s like trying to turn a supertanker. 

At the North of Tyne Combined Authority, happily, we’ve got a different approach.

Our Green New Deal Fund provides financial backing to projects that deliver real carbon savings, and create new, well-paid jobs.  And it develops skills in our region’s low-carbon industries.

We’re providing between £200,000 to £1 million per project to support all kinds of initiatives.  Community energy schemes.  Electric Vehicle charging solutions.  Building retrofits.  Small scale renewable energy generation.  Natural capital.  Low-carbon heating systems.

Over the next four years our Green New Deal Fund will invest at least £18 million in low carbon projects in the North of Tyne.  We’re offering low-cost loans and patient equity, which recipients can repay from their energy savings or business growth.  So the fund is recyclable, meaning the money can be spent again.  And again.

Joined-up projects like this seem blindingly obvious to me.  It’s a pity the Government doesn’t see things this way.  But we see it very clearly.