Rural England calls on the government to review its approach to decarbonising rural properties following new research.

A report published today by the independent rural research organisation, Rural England CIC, raises further concerns about the government’s apparent one-size-fits-all policy of requiring the installation of heat pumps in rural off-gas grid homes and businesses to a faster timetable than in homes connected to the gas grid. 

The report uses 20 case studies which cover a wide range of ages and types of properties, all of which have the common features of being rural and off-gas grid. The researchers found that whilst heat pumps may work in all properties, there is a significant additional cost (of £20.000 plus) of ensuring that many rural properties reach the energy efficiency levels to make heat pumps viable. 

Many rural properties being targeted by this draft government policy are older and, in some cases, listed. Therefore, they require significant work to make them energy efficient so a heat pump can work effectively. This work comes at a substantial cost for households that, being rural, include more older people, face higher living costs, and earn lower wages than the national average. 

Further findings in the report include:  

  • The appraisal system to gauge energy efficiency and options is out-of-date, often resulting in inappropriate recommendations for rural properties. 
  • Those that have started to decarbonise their properties have adopted a piecemeal approach resulting in significant disruption and inefficient buildings. 
  • Some installation contractors are ‘learning on the job through their mistakes.’ 
  • There is an urgent need for Ofgem to carry out a full review of resilience requirements with the electricity Distribution Network Operators. The current networks across many rural areas are simply not capable at present of coping with the widespread electrification of heating (and electric vehicles). 
  • The government should immediately publish its response to   its consultation, carried out in January 2022, which had proposed, from 2026, a ban on fossil fuel boilers in off-gas grid properties when the existing boilers cannot be repaired. This is 9 years earlier than similar proposals for on-gas grid areas. 

Rural England CIC Chair of Directors, Graham Biggs MBE, said: “This research findings come as no surprise. The government wants to ban fossil fuel boilers in off-gas grid properties 9 years earlier than on-gas grid properties, with rural households left with no choice but to install more expensive alternatives. This report confirms this is grossly unfair when the properties affected by this proposed policy are the most in need of significant investment to retrofit them to a standard where they are energy efficient. To put it simply, most rural homes need substantial investment to make them suitable for green technology. Many of the government’s own MPs can see we need to revisit this and take a more rounded approach.” 

Earlier this summer, Sir Bill Wiggins MP (Con, North Herefordshire) led a debate in the House of Commons where he said: “I urge the Government to re-evaluate their strategy, drop the ban (on fossil fuel boilers by 2026) and develop a plan that prioritises practicality, affordability and choice for rural homeowners, and ensures that those living in rural home are not unfairly disadvantaged because of where they live.”   This is a view shared by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Services.

The Rural England report concludes that “pushing ahead with a uniform assumption that heat pumps are the best option for the majority of rural off-gas grid situations is incorrect.”  Mr Biggs says what is needed is a joined-up approach: “We need the government to look at this holistically. Make no mistake, Rural England CIC supports the Net Zero strategy overall, but we want a strategy and implementation that is fair for rural communities.

“What we need for the decarbonisation of rural, off-gas grid, properties is a mixed technology approach that allows consumers a choice of how best to decarbonise heating their homes or businesses. Heat pumps may well be a satisfactory solution for many properties in rural England, but this report shows that electrification will not always be the only – or best – way. A mixed technology approach which might include bio and recycled carbon fuels such as renewable liquid gas, bioliquids and hybrid heat pumps will broaden the range of cost-effective low carbon heating solutions. “

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