Arbed: Will it leave more than green slime behind?

(Title Image: via BBC Wales)

The Welsh Government’s Arbed scheme is a flagship policy designed to address fuel poverty – a topic currently subject to an inquiry by the Senedd’s Environment Committee.

Arbed is delivered in partnership with local authorities, housing associations and various subcontractors to deliver physical measures to cut bills for households that spend a high proportion of their outgoings on energy. All nobly intentioned.

While it’s not restricted to providing cavity wall insulation (it can include things like central heating replacements and other energy efficiency measures like external insulation), insulation has formed one of the key elements of the scheme.

For several years now, households which have taken part in Arbed (and other government-backed energy efficiency schemes) have reported serious problems with their homes as a result of inappropriate work.

It’s said up to three-quarters of Wales is unsuitable for cavity wall insulation due to driving rains and when the insulation is inappropriately installed it can lead to issues such as damp – which, with cruel irony, can lead to higher energy bills to deal with it as well as associated health problems.

While it’s true to say that for many people taking part in these programmes, the outcomes will likely be positive and they’ll appreciate the support (Cardiff University research – pdf), shoddy work can be ruinous.

Most of the recent headlines have come out of Gwynedd, but there are issues across Wales.

I’ve been reliably told that an independent survey of Arbed homes in the village of Caerau – one of the most deprived communities in Wales, north of Maesteg – suggested large future compensation claims (a figure of £1million has been bandied about) due to a poor standard of work and damage to properties. To make matters worse, Bridgend Council seemingly only offered households a single contractor to carry out the work at the time.

Bridgend Council has been undertaking an internal audit of their management of the Arbed scheme but that report has been said to be “nearing completion” for the best part of a year or longer and hasn’t been published (as far as I can tell). It’s also unlikely to be a forensic examination, such as the reasons behind why a particular contractor was selected.

As the Senedd’s Environment Committee recently heard, there’s a huge amount of money flowing through energy efficiency and green energy schemes. Wherever there’s a complicated set-up with so many different players with differing motives there’s the potential for cowboys to muscle their way in alongside those with the best intentions at heart.

There’s always a danger that in the race for green pounds and big shifts in the way we power our homes, the bad experiences communities will have had will cloud their judgement when further schemes are put forward – in Caerau’s example plans to use mine water to heat homes, or a proposed district heating network in Bridgend town centre – convincing them that it’s not worth the hassle to take part at the risk of being left with a large bill to fix any possible problems.

So let’s hope that when Arbed inevitably comes under closer scrutiny at some point, the worst legacy it will have left behind is some green slime and not a politically explosive hot potato.

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