Government delays banning gas boilers - David Alexander opinion

5th Oct 2023
David J Alexander
Government delays banning gas boilers - David Alexander opinion - D. J. Alexander

In his latest column for The Scotsman, David Alexander discusses the government's decision to delay banning gas boilers.

The prime minister’s decision to delay the deadline for the banning of gas boilers in new properties has been generally welcomed within the housing sector. While there are some concerns that this will postpone the UK’s journey to net zero it is recognised that meeting this arbitrary deadline would be both costly and impracticable in the current economic environment.

At a time when the cost of living is uppermost in most peoples’ minds maintaining a date – which remains ahead of most other countries targets – seems churlish when to delay is sensible.

But this only applies in England and Wales and the First Minister has decided to double down on his view that the introduction of new regulations in Scotland banning gas boilers from new homes by next year remains a viable and practical policy position.

The truth is that there are neither the installers, nor the financial appetite among Scots to meet this deadline given the reality of the workforce levels and the true costs of new heating systems.

While Patrick Harvie has claimed that the cost of installing appropriate heat pumps is around £8,400 the Energy Savings Trust estimates that installation costs for air source heat pumps is between £7,000 and £10,000 and for ground source heat pumps costs are between £28,000-£49,000 depending on the individual property.

This cost will have to be borne by the new house buyer next year and, by existing homeowners when new Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) standards are introduced.

This is a considerable and onerous sum for new homeowners to pay to meet the new energy rating standards and could substantially impact on the value of many existing homes if they are unable to meet new EPC standards before selling. While these costs may come down, they are currently very high and, for most homeowners, unachievable out of existing incomes and budgets.

But even if homeowners were prepared to pay these sums there are not enough installers to do the work and there won’t be enough before the 2030 deadline. At present there are an estimated 210 companies operating in Scotland's heat pump installation sector, with 200 to 400 installers delivering approximately 3,500 installations per year.

This would indicate that these are one-to-two-man companies who will be unlikely to be able to scale up their operations to meet the targets set out in the bill.

To reach the Scottish Government’s own net zero targets they have targeted 170,000 low carbon heating installations per year by 2030. There would need to be a 48-fold increase in the number of installations and installers in just seven years.

Given that it takes three to four years to take an individual from initial apprenticeship to being fully trained and that this level of scaling up will only be undertaken by the largest employers it would seem that there is an insurmountable gap between the current targets and their achievability given the small scale of the workforce and the ability to build this up in the short time allocated.

We have, therefore, a huge gap between ambitious targets, very high costs, and the practicality of the installation process. The targets won’t be met but the unintended consequences of attempting to force the housing sector to rapidly implement these changes when there is not the workforce, nor the sectoral capacity, to meet these targets means that very real harm could be done to the Scottish housing market but with limited positive impact on the environment.

Homebuilders, construction companies, trade bodies, banks and investors have all voiced their concerns that the new boiler legislation will damage the Scottish housing market and they believe that the rapid introduction of this regulation will result in a reduction in supply of new homes in the next few years exacerbating the current shortages.

I believe a moratorium on the existing proposed legislation be imposed with further detailed discussion with all aspects of the housing sector to ensure that we are putting forward achievable goals within realistic timescales.

With the UK government already recognising that these regulations are unachievable and unaffordable in the existing timeframe it makes sense for the Scottish Government to match the delayed timetable for the introduction of these changes to ensure we have a smooth, affordable, and workable introduction of clean energy heating systems.