Buildings (Thermal Insulation)

Transport Holding Company Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th January 1972.

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11.23 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Garrett Mr Edward Garrett , Wallsend

I wish tonight to draw the attention of the House to the need for the Government to give urgent consideration to a policy of high standards of thermal insulation in public and Crown buildings and also in all housing construction or modernisation in public and private sectors. I am pleased to see the Minister here again, for the second night in succession, to answer an Adjournment debate.

This matter has been raised before by hon. Members on both sides. As recently as 15th December last year, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) tried to obtain some assurance that positive guidance would be given by the Government to help people to make a greater use of the wide variety of the insulating materials now available. I regret that their efforts were unsuccessful.

There is an urgent need for the Government to take a lead in this matter. This is backed by overwhelming evidence. The national fuel resources will benefit from the conservation of heat loss. The Economist Intelligence Unit published some figures in June, 1970. They were calculated on a total heat loss from individual households from 1960 to 1969 in money terms. That loss has reached the astronomical figure of £35,133,339. Extra insulation in the buildings constructed over the period would have cost £11,312,075, thus saving the nation £23,821,264—an impressive saving. These savings would have resulted if building regulations had made it compulsory to have two inches of mineral fibre quilt or some equivalent insulation fitted into the roofs of the houses.

Those responsible for my figures admit that during the same period it was not possible to make a more precise estimate for hospitals and schools, but they have made an estimate based on the 1968–69 hospital building programme. If additional insulating materials had been used on this programme of £113·7 million, the savings each year would have been about £22,400. On a similar calculation to that for house building, the saving on new schools built during 1968–69 would have been about £16,900 a year. Even if treated with caution, these figures are still impressive enough to warrant some direct action by the Government.

Unfortunately, I have no estimate of the situation over the next decade, but if building and modernisation of older property proceed at their current rate without Government assistance, the loss to the nation will be gigantic. This will continue without some decisive lead by the Government. Time does not permit me to list the savings to individuals, but if the public could be given some general guidance on how much it would cost for each house, I am sure that there would be a surge of effort to have more houses equipped with thermal insulation.

I am convinced from a study of the figures that the cost of insulation can pay for itself in a little over a year. In other words, the cost of insulating an average house is equivalent to six months' car insurance, a year's supply of morning and evening newspapers or, for those who like a flutter on the football pools, a 60-line entry on the pools each week for a year.

I have so far given a general economic analysis of the reasons in favour of thermal insulation. There are, however, other factors. There is, for example, a good deal of general apathy and ignorance about the benefits that would accrue from the policy I am advocating.

We in Britain still by and large accept an old-fashioned approach to warm, dry and comfortable homes. We want our sitting and living rooms to be warm, but for about five months of the year we accept zero temperatures in bedrooms and bathrooms. Indeed, we accept this as a normal state of affairs. There are varying views about the need for well-heated offices and factories, but many people remain indifferent to the thermal insulation needs of other buildings.

A recent survey showed that Britain was eleventh out of 12 European nations in its approach to proper heating standards in houses. It is this casual approach which is responsible for the deaths each year of 9,000 old people from hypothermia. That is the official term given for their death, which is brought about by out-of-date heating standards.

It is incomprehensible that we should be dragging behind other European countries in our efforts to improve the thermal insulation of our homes. Why do we persist in denying ourselves warm and dry homes? Provided thermal insulation is properly fitted, no building need he damp.

Many other benefits would follow this policy being implemented. Fewer old people would succumb to the vicissitudes of winter and, above all, most homes would be better places in which to live. More jobs would be created because more of the basic materials would have to be manufactured and more people would be required to fit the insulation material into the buildings.

I have endeavoured to state the economic advantages of this method of heating buildings and I have no doubt that there would be tremendous savings to the national fuel bill. But we must not overlook the environmental and social advantages that would be gained. As the Government are engaged, and rightly so, on a large house-building policy, coupled with the modernisation of older properties, I am convinced that this is the time for a clear policy statement to be made on the need to encourage the installation of thermal insulation and at the same time to give the necessary financial assistance, especially to the house-building sector of the construction industry.

I trust that the Minister will give an assurance that the points I have raised will receive urgent consideration by the Government.

11.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Leadbitter Mr Edward Leadbitter , Hartlepools, The

The remarkable way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) dealt with this subject was particularly pleasing in view of its now political nature. For some unaccountable reason, this major problem is never dealt with, whichever political party is in office. We talk about it, get through the winter and the following seasons and then are again faced with the same hardy annual next year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend has underlined the need for urgent action. Must we go on for another year without it being taken? The Under-Secretary of State has a remarkable opportunity tonight to give the House an assurance on this matter. One of the great problems we face in trying to increase the standards of housing is that we are making no headway in dealing with the question of the cost of fuel for heating houses or with the inconveniences which arise in many households because of the lack of thermal insulation. The cost of dealing with this problem would be more than offset by the advantages gained in terms of comfort and economy.

I read in the Press—and my experience confirms it—that many families find it a hardship to meet the increasing costs of fuel. Has anybody attempted to calculate how much less it would cost to heat a modern house in normal winter conditions, excluding the extreme conditions which we experience from time to time, if it were thermally insulated? I suspect that the saving would be considerable. This is an important consideration from the point of view not only of the domestic consumer but of the nation, because the conservation of fuel is of vital importance.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will answer the many valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend. He made them in a firm and comprehensive way and gave some interesting costings which put the problem in perspective. The need to take action is imperative for the two reasons I have outlined, briefly, in order to give the Under-Secretary time to reply—the impact which the installation of thermal insulation would have on the domestic consumer and the national need for fuel conservation.

I trust also that the Under-Secretary will bear in mind that, while I have addressed my remarks to the question of new houses, older houses and public buildings present a bigger problem. If we knew the cost of keeping this building— and it is a poor example—at the right temperature, we should understand the need nationally for fuel saving by means of installing thermal insulation. We all know about the plumbing costs and difficulties which arise from our forgetting to lag pipes. Builders never seem to realise how best to deal with the problem of pipes which, oddly enough, is related to the question of heating and the containment of heat.

I am grateful to the Minister for indicating his willingness for me to intervene briefly in this debate. I hope that he will take the opportunity to bring to an end the extreme anxiety that there is, that he will bring to an end the long-drawn-out attempts of hon. Members to have the matter dealt with, and that he will accept that although the matter has been raised in an Adjournment debate it is, if we think about it, a matter of vital importance to everybody—indeed, more than vital when we think of the economic return that we should get from the proper use of fuel.

11.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) has done a service in raising this matter tonight. I was most interested to hear what he said, as I was to hear the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. Leadbitter). I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) is present to hear the debate, because he has taken a particular interest in this subject over many years.

The hon. Member for Wallsend raised the topic of thermal insulation in new local authority building. He recognises that local authorities have the first responsibility for deciding the standard of thermal insulation in their own buildings. I repeat what I think the House knows, that for dwellings a minimum standard is set in the building regulations which apply to both publicly and privately built dwellings. These regulations were first introduced in 1952 in the form of model building byelaws, the standard was raised in 1959, and again in 1966—and those are the regulations which are now in force.

I think everyone agrees that for a comfortable, economic standard of heating in dwellings there are three important factors—insulation, heat and ventilation. The hon. Gentleman raised a point about hypothermia. That is the most serious problem of all. Not far behind it is the problem of condensation. These difficulties can arise if one or all of those factors are neglected. The neglect of one can often nullify the effort expended on any of the others. For example, no amount of thermal insulation will prevent an old person from dying of hypothermia if there is little or no heating in the dwelling. Similarly, if dwellings are draughty and the external doors are not waterproof, efforts to increase thermal insulation will largely be in vain.

The same is true of condensation. It cannot be avoided by thermal insulation alone. It is necessary to have the right level of ventilation to remove moisture from the dwelling, and also to ensure that the dwelling is heated. There are many human problems, such as getting householders to know the causes of condensation and to make use of the ventilation and heating capacity at their disposal.

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's view that there should be a higher building regulation standard of thermal insulation, and I know the argument which is put forward on economic terms. I think everyone agrees that dwellings—in fact all buildings—should be constructed to a standard of thermal insulation which would make the best use of the total cost of fuel plus insulation. Obviously that would be the standard which best conserves the nation's resources.

This is matter for the building regulations. The regulations are made under the Public Health Acts. They can be used only to set standards which can be justified in terms of health and safety. I have not heard any arguments that the building regulations level of thermal insulation is inadequate for health and safety, although this is a matter which is kept under constant review. I know that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the building regulations should take account of matters apart from health and safety. That is a big question, about which so far no Government have been prepared to agree.

The building regulations deal with health and safety. That obviously does not mean that the same answer is given on health and safety grounds as would be given if the case were to be based on economic criteria.

What emerges from a careful analysis of thermal insulation requirements for housing is that no single standard can be proposed. No single standard will optimise the economic factors involved. I will not weary the House by giving all the factors involved in making this judgment—the proportion of external walls and roofs, the climate, the type of heating system, and the many other matters which must be considered. The decision on the optimum insulation standard must follow from a full analysis of the dwelling concerned. The Government are not convinced that thermal insulation would be the solution to what is a much more complex problem.

Many local authorities achieve standards of thermal insulation which are higher, and in some cases substantially higher, than the building regulations level. The House will be pleased to know that in a representative sample taken recently of all local authority housing built in the last 10 years, over 30 per cent. of dwellings were built to a standard of thermal insulation higher than required by building regulations. The report has not been published yet, so I will not mention names of authorities, but I can assure the hon. Member for Wallsend that there are a number in the Northern Economic Region which have achieved very much higher standards than are required by the building regulations. I can think of at least two county boroughs, for example.

It can be the case that good thermal insulation in some cases costs more, but there are many cases in which the proper standards can be achieved at very little extra, and in some cases no extra, cost. The cost of laying insulation in the roof space is one example. The cost of materials is a relatively small proportion of the total cost, and therefore the extra cost is relatively small.

Thermal insulation of external walls can be improved relatively easily. Technical solutions are at hand, and the cost of modern components can even be less than traditional brick construction. But that is not the end of the story. If one considers the whole external wall, there is not much advantage to be gained by improving the thermal insulation of the unglazed part of the wall if architects at the same time are specifying very much larger areas of external glazing, or if windows are likely to be left open or extractor fans fitted. Often a complete re-appraisal of the housing layout is called for. I accept that much can be done by the designer to improve the thermal insulation performance in the dwelling as a whole by reducing the extent of external walling and avoiding layouts in which the proportion of external wall is excessive.

In dealing with the standard of local authority dwelling which should be provided in future, it is appropriate to mention how sad I am sure all hon. Members who take an interest in these matters were to read of the death of Sir Parker Morris, who played such a part in this field and whose name will live for many years linked with the standards, which bear his name, for local authority and other dwellings.

I have stressed a number of design factors which have an important bearing on the overall thermal insulation performance of a dwelling. I believe that design guidance is certainly a field in which the Department of the Environment has an important rôle to play. We have been able to bring together a large body of expertise in every aspect of building design which I think only the largest housing authorities could match. There are active programmes of research and development. There are well-established channels of communication with local authorities. I expect many hon. Members will be familiar with the work of the Working Party on Condensation and Mould.

There were two Design Bulletins, one in 1970 and one in 1971, which gave advice on all the factors, including thermal insulation, which needed to be considered in combating condensation on both new buildings and old. This was followed by the Condensation Survey recently undertaken and which I mentioned when I referred to some local authorities a few moments ago. The Condensation Survey has given us a large amount of data on the incidence of condensation and we are now considering what further detailed design advice needs to be given to local authorities as a result of the findings.

We are also undertaking a comprehensive study of thermal insulation, and we shall be taking into account the results of the Condensation Survey, the economic arguments that have been advanced and the requirements of people's comfort. I shall make sure that hon. Members' remarks during our debate are studied by those who are much more expert than I and who have guided us in this comprehensive study on thermal insulation, which I hope will be of interest to the House.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that this is an important subject. It is of great concern to many people. The Department of the Environment takes it very seriously and has professional officers always ready to give help to local authorities in all building activities. The Building Research Establishment's advisory service is well known to everyone concerned with the design of housing, and is available to help with detailed advice.

I am told by the Department's professional officers, both in the regions and in London, that there is a great increase in interest, as measured by the requests for advice which they have received on the whole subject of thermal insulation from local authority designers. The standard of thermal insulation is rising all the time. All the evidence shows that this will continue, and I expect it to accelerate.

The importance of this subject is heightened by the increasing acceptance, both inside and outside the House, of the need to conserve our resources, on the one hand, and to avoid many forms of environmental pollution, on the other. There is no reason why private sector builders should not improve the thermal insulation of their buildings. This would be a selling point, since they could show that running costs would be lower as a result. If the hon. Gentleman's figures are correct, extra capital expenditure on thermal insulation could be recouped in very few years, and this would be an excellent selling point for the private builder.

The Department of the Environment will continue positively to assist the development of thermal insulation by offering local authority designers the best and most up-to-date advice available. We are awaiting a comprehensive study on thermal insulation which will be of value to all those inside and outside the House who are interested in this problem. We shall be able to return to this subject with a clearer idea of the future when we have received this comprehensive study, which will shed light on the more detailed technical problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for having raised this subject of such wide- spread interest, to which we shall wish to return in the not-to-distant future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.