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March 10, 2016updated 04 Aug 2023 8:56am

Smart homes could cut energy bills and emissions – but they'll never take off in this renters' economy

By Barbara Speed

A couple of months ago, I went to a presentation about a smart thermostat making waves in the Netherlands. The company, Quby, works with energy providers to install a tablet-like control panel in your house, and thereby see and control exactly how much energy you’re using at different times. Customers pay a small subscription fee, but tend to make the money back through reduced heating and electricity bills.

Around the world, similar products are appearing in the market, promising both an end to the hours spent wrestling with your boiler’s timer settings, and the possibility of saving energy and money by directly controlling your thermostat through your smartphone.

As with fitness trackers, this ability to track your use should encourage customers to cut down in order to beat their own targets. No more leaving your heating on during a weekend away; no more letting idle chragers seep electricity unnoticed. Good for the world. Good for wallets. 

But even as I heard the long list of benefits, it was hard to get excited. This is because I, like around 50 per cent of Londoners and 18 per cent of UK households, rent my home. In the decade to 2011, the proportion of renters increased in every single English region.

My house is owned by a small agency, and they’re pretty good with repairs and upkeep – but they’ve taken three months to replace curtains they mysteriously removed back in November. I’m not sure they’re chomping at the bit to install a smart thermostat.

The Quby representatives told me that, while they’re hoping to launch in the UK in 2016, they didn’t encounter anything like the UK’s private rental market in the Netherlands: there, people either own, or their homes are managed by companies who may see this kind of technology as a selling point. A UK landlord probably doesn’t care how high your bills are, knows they’ll find a tenant no matter what, and thinks you’d break anything with the word “smart” in its name anyway.

This goes for other home improvement measures, too. The London Borough of Haringey offers a grant of up to £6,000 for tenants or owners looking to improve the energy efficiency of their home, by, say, installing new insulation. But even if your landlord gave consent to this, the fleeting length of tenancies mean you would be taking a gamble on an improvement whose benefits you’d may never actually see.

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The average tenancy rate in the UK is increasing, and last summer reached an average  2.7 years. But this is still a relatively short amount of time – and it’s by no means guaranteed by most contracts.

The Labour manifesto at the last election (may it rest in peace) proposed that three-year tenancy contracts should become the norm, and landlords should have a higher burden of proof if they want to turf you out before the contract is up. In contrast, this government is determined to allow everyone to own through Help to Buy – but it’ll take a long time to turn us back into a nation of owners, if it ever succeeds at all. For those without a despoit-sized chunk of money, renting remains the only option. 

In the meantime, there are no efforts to improve tenants’ lot, which is having a knock-on effect on the quality of housing, especially in terms of energy usage. It’s hard to care about insulation in a house you don’t live in, especially if you’re a single-property landlord struggling to repay your own debts.

Housing accounted for more than a quarter of the UK’s energy consumption in 2012 – more than both industry and transport: 

Source: Housing Energy Fact File, 2013.

As a government report noted in 2013, “it will be impossible [to meet the 2008 Climate Act’s emissions targets] without changing emissions from homes”. But it will also be impossible to tackle this problem while the rental market remains unstable and under-regulated.

There’s a wider point, too, which goes beyond fancy energy-saving devices: short-term renting discourages its participants from putting down roots in communities, or the houses they live in. This has an impact on everything from civic-mindedness (“Is it Islington I live in now? It’s hard to keep track”) to energy use and education.

Perhaps it’s time Cameron acknowledges the renting economy and its problems, rather than pretending renting is still a necessary state of purgatory before you buy your real home.  

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