UK’s green plan offers mixed hopes for post-Covid-19 jobs boom

Britain’s homes are going green, says Derek Horrocks, who runs a home insulation business in Lancashire that has vacancies for architects, surveyors, administrators and accountants.

Horrocks, who runs Sustainable Building Services from his offices in Skelmersdale, near Wigan, south Lancashire, says he spent much of 2020 contemplating how to avoid making redundancies. That was after several years when ministers said they wanted to turbo-charge the insulation of British homes, only for those plans to be shelved.

“For the first time in a long time we can see a positive picture,” he said.

His staff assess whether homes need cavity wall insulation, external rendering, ground source heat pumps or underfloor heating before arranging for the work to be done and later checking it is up to a high standard.

This year he expects to employ an extra 50 HQ staff to cope with the flow of business from the government’s “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” and particularly the seventh element: greener buildings.

Launched last November, Boris Johnson pledged a green plan to create 250,000 jobs by 2030, developing hydrogen technology, expanding the windfarm sector, building advanced nuclear power stations, and by cutting the carbon emissions of Britain’s 26m homes by 75-85%.

About 50,000 jobs are due to be created in the building sector to meet emissions targets that Johnson believes will meet the UK’s obligations ahead of the United Nations Cop26 summit in Glasgow later this year.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who unveiled a £3bn post-pandemic green package last year that Labour described as inadequate, is expected to support the 10-point plan in his budget on 3 March with extra cash to meet a more ambitious £9.2bn Conservative manifesto pledge to improve the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.

In the meantime, the government’s Green Homes Grant (GHG), which opened for business in September, is the main vehicle.

Plagued by teething problems, the GHG voucher scheme was due to dispense £2bn by the end of this March giving homeowners two-thirds of the cost of energy-efficient improvements, up to a maximum of £5,000 a household, or the full cost up to £10,000 if residents have low incomes.

Payment delays forced many installers to down tools and stop recruitment. Within three months of the launch, an embarrassed department of business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) had extended the scheme to March 2022.

Horrocks, who is also head of the insulation industry body and regularly negotiates with officials from BEIS, recognises that finding 50,000 workers will be difficult while the construction industry is weighed down by its reputation as a cyclical business that traditionally hires and fires in sync with the ups and downs of property prices.

“The industry is not the first choice for young people. It is not considered a desirable career. And that will only change if we reach out and convince them there are lots of opportunities in this green business,” he said.

Training grants play a large part in his plans for expansion. Workers who render homes with insulating material can gain NVQs while architects are offered the necessary qualifications to become home assessors.

a scaffolding in front of a building: Builders attach rigid foam wall insulation sheets on a Victorian terraced house. Photograph: David Gee 4/Alamy

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Builders attach rigid foam wall insulation sheets on a Victorian terraced house. Photograph: David Gee 4/Alamy

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The financial rewards are also good, with specialist trades people earning more the £50,000 a year and mostly working indoors, unlike many construction workers.

Industry optimism, however, is not universal. Simon Blackham, technical manager at insulation board manufacturer Recticel says the government’s funding initiatives are still too short term. That, he says, prevents firms from making major commitments to raise staff numbers.

Regulations covering residential developments are another sore point. New homes will not have to meet tough emissions standards until 2025. Until then, only the most basic insulation is needed to satisfy the rules.

“We can produce enough insulation panels for as many zero-carbon homes as the industry can build right now. There is plenty of manufacturing capacity. So there is no reason why we can’t build passive homes from today,” he said.

Factories producing insulating materials are largely automated and job numbers are likely to stay largely the same, said Blackham, though he would increase staffing levels in marketing, warehousing and distribution should sales improve.

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Simon Storer, chief executive of the Insulation Manufacturers Association, agreed that a firmer commitment from the government to insulate homes would guarantee manufacturing jobs rather than increase them.

Economists say the same outlook applies to all parts of the UK’s “green” manufacturing sector: automation already dominates production and limits the creation of skilled jobs.

Michael Pollitt, a business economist at the Judge Business school, Cambridge University, said that while 35 jobs are created in the broader recycling industry for every £1m invested, only 10 jobs are created by opening a gigafactory (battery factory). In the windfarm sector £1m creates just two jobs. The average for “green jobs” is five per £1m invested.

a bird sitting on top of a sunset: Only two jobs are created for every £1m invested in windfarms. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

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Only two jobs are created for every £1m invested in windfarms. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Any chance of a manufacturing bonanza is further undermined by the trend for much of the highly profitable, green industrial equipment to be developed and constructed abroad, from wind turbines to electric cars.

Philip McCann, chair in urban and regional economics at Sheffield University’s management school, says the UK has struggled to develop a green industrial base because a postwar gap persists between innovative startup businesses and their larger cousins that might translate profitable ideas into mass production.

A lack of skills training is another. “It is not a lack of money, it is about an over-centralised system when in the US and continental Europe, regions and cities have power and can tailor their support.”

a person on the machine: Skills training in the UK is heavily centralised. Photograph: Stockbroker/Alamy Stock Photo

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Skills training in the UK is heavily centralised. Photograph: Stockbroker/Alamy Stock Photo

Pollitt argues that Britain’s relatively small manufacturing base makes it ideally suited to making the transition to a zero-carbon economy. A flexible labour force also means that workers who find themselves unemployed, or in sectors damaged by the pandemic, can easily make the transition.

“Britain’s advantage is that it has a largely decarbonised service sector that dominates the economy. If the UK cannot decarbonise then it is hard to see what country can.”

But he also fears that the meagre sums of money dedicated to green grants and subsidies and the limited funding horizon will turn off workers.

“Green jobs are seen as part of a short-term transition while the existing stock – which could be homes or power stations – are replaced.”

That means green jobs do not look like a career even though a target to reach net zero by 2050 would make them an option for most people.