Reduce the heating bill for your draughty old country pile by turning the thermostat up! Ross Clark on the government’s kuh-ray-zee green-energy incentives
A FEW YEARS ago I met an antiques dealer who was selling his large country house to buy something smaller and modern. He had bought it, like a latterday Mr Darcy, partly in the hope that it might impress a future wife. Eventually he met a Polish girl and one weekend drove her out to the country, through the gates and up the driveway, imagining that, like Elizabeth Bennet, the first sight of his house might be the moment that she fell in love with him.
As it happens, she did fall in love and they did get married — but it didn’t have much to do with his house. In fact, she couldn’t stand the place. She said it reminded her of horror films, and that she felt cold all the time. She didn’t even like the grounds; she took to driving their first child fifteen miles to Bath so he could play in the park there, rather than taking him out of the back door into his rolling acres of Wiltshire countryside.
That pretty well sums up the attitude of many international buyers to the English country house. Americans may love a good pile, but that isn’t always the case with potential buyers from the Middle East, Eastern Europe or the Far East. There are plenty of wealthy foreigners looking to buy in Britain, but most of the money is going into big lateral apartments in Kensington and large, modern houses in Highgate and Surrey. The traditional English country house has been left out of the fun: Knight Frank recently reported that prices of prime country houses have fallen by 0.7 per cent over the second quarter of 2011, and by 1.4 per cent over the past year.
You have to wonder whether the English country house is coming to be seen as a chilly relic that freezes the toes, if not puts a tingle down the spine. An uninsulated stone pile might be fine for buyers conditioned to the cold through attendance of an English public school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that international buyers are going to be impressed.
The factor that is making Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern magnates rich — high oil prices — is also making large, draughty houses less appealing. Ten years ago heating oil cost less than 20p a litre; last winter it touched 80p. Also, few country-house owners want to live as their owners once did, confined to a little snug while closing down the grander rooms for the winter — not to mention waking up to a frozen chamber pot.
The fabric of old buildings does not lend itself easily to shirt-sleeve lifestyles, especially not when combined with government carbon-reduction targets. Yet there is a remarkable amount of taxpayers’ cash suddenly becoming available for country-house owners who are feeling a little chilly. The government’s green energy policy could not be better designed to help mansion-owners. If you have a big, empty expanse of roofspace on the outhouses, you can cover it with an array of photovoltaic panels. Your electricity company will then be obliged to buy electricity from you at a price of 44.3p per kilowatt-hour — three times the going rate. The burden will be passed on to other electricity customers.
Fed up with the oil bill? You can do what Simon Howard did at Castle Howard in Yorkshire and install a ground source heat pump. The taxpayer will chip in to the tune of 7p per kWh of heat your heating system produces — which adds up if you have twenty or so bedrooms. If you prefer, you can install a woodchip boiler and get the taxpayer to stump up 9p per kWh.
These subsidies are not really designed to help keep the masses warm. Green energy systems do not work particularly well on small houses, and they require a significant outlay in order to claim the subsidies.
Why the government has worked so hard to devise subsidies that are so skewed in favour of the rich is quite puzzling. But then, when you’re paying income tax at 50p in the pound, perhaps it isn’t unreasonable to expect something back. We are going back to the 1970s, when high income taxes were combined with subsidies for the manufacture of luxury cars and, of course, the hugely unprofitable Concorde. You hand over your money, went the message, but we’ll give you something in return: we’ll subsidise luxuries made by British workers.
There was one little problem: you didn’t actually have to live in Britain in order to take advantage of subsidised Concorde flights: you could move abroad, avoid paying tax to Britain, and use British taxpayers’ largesse to take the odd flight home to Blighty.
There is a slight weakness about green energy subsidies, too. Install a ‘green’ boiler and you’ll get paid per kWh of energy you produce, regardless of whether you actually need to heat your home or not — in other words, giving homeowners a perverse incentive to turn up the thermostat and heat the house when they are not even there. So why not fly off to Hong Kong, leaving the heating on full, and come home to a warm living room — and a large cheque from the taxpayer?
It takes genius to invent a scheme like this. Ever wondered why government policymakers are not in business?