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“Forgetting to call the plumber puts Net Zero at risk” – think-tank

Plumbers have been overlooked in the Government’s plans to end the use of gas boilers in British homes, putting the whole Net Zero agenda in jeopardy, a think-tank warns.

The Social Market Foundation said that the Government strategy aimed at decarbonising home heating does not give plumbers and other workers enough incentive to get training to install the heat pumps that ministers want to replace gas boilers.

The SMF is undertaking a major research project with the heat installer workforce.  Its interviews with plumbers suggest that many see little reason to spend time and money getting the skills needed for heat pumps.

The UK’s Net Zero plans mean decarbonising the heating of buildings, including homes, which account for 14% of carbon emissions. Over the coming decades that will mean replacing millions of domestic fossil fuel-burning heating systems with new ones, including heat pumps.

But the SMF found that the Government does not appear to know how many installers are currently trained for heat pumps.  Official Net Zero documents use different figures, the SMF found.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy, published by the business department, suggests that there are 1,100 fully accredited companies.  The Net Zero Strategy, published by Boris Johnson on the same day, suggests there are currently 3,000 trained fitters.

SMF analysis of the heat strategy, published today, concludes that the policies it sets out do not give plumbers and installers enough reasons to train for heat pumps.  The strategy overlooks the fact that most the relevant workers are self-employed sole traders, who must spend their own time and money on training.

Many plumbers do not currently believe that such training will be soon justified by work installing heat pumps, the SMF found.   The heat strategy does not do enough to support household demand for heat pumps, it concluded: the £450 million set aside for grants will support just 90,000 new pumps a year for three years.  

The heat strategy also postpones a decision on whether to support the use of hydrogen in boilers as an alternative to fossil fuel gas. That creates uncertainty among plumbers about heat pumps, the SMF said.

Finally, the SMF found that some plumbers, especially those closer to pension age, are calculating that existing gas boilers will create enough work for them until they retire.   Ministers have said they hope to end all installations of new gas boilers by 2035, but have not set a firm deadline and insist that no-one will be required to replace a pre-existing boiler.

The combined effect will be that Britain risks being left with not enough workers with the skills and training needed to replace millions of gas boilers, the SMF said.

Amy Norman, senior researcher at the SMF, said: “Taking the carbon out of home heating is a vital part of Net Zero, and the Heat and Buildings Strategy is a good start.  But as things stand, the Government isn’t creating enough incentives to plumbers and other heat workers to get the training needed to replace gas boilers with greener alternatives.  That can still be fixed, but unless it is, forgetting to call the plumber could put Boris Johnson’s whole green agenda at risk.”

“Plumbers, installers and heat engineers are vital to Britain’s greener future. They’re skilled workers who are used to making sure they have the right training to meet customers’ needs. But when you’re your own boss, you need to know the costs of training are going to be worthwhile, and right now Net Zero plans don’t offer enough incentives to train.”

19 November 2021

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