Insulate Britain (IB) - “the new kid on the activist block” - is an environmental group which, since September 2021, has dominated the news and split public opinion. But who are they, why are they protesting and why are they attracting so much attention?
Who are Insulate Britain?
As an offshoot of the Extinction Rebellion, the group is calling on the UK Government to fully fund the installation of heat-saving measures, particularly in social housing, by 2025 and for all British homes by 2030. So, why are they campaigning for our homes to be insulated? Why is this so important?
Why and how are they protesting?
With the current disparity in housing quality strongly impacting those in social housing, the group’s ethos is grounded in calling on the government to take effective action to reduce carbon emissions, improve public health and eliminate fuel poverty. As energy bills are set to soar, 54% in April and more in the Autumn, illnesses and deaths caused by the cold are set to increase. From a purely environmental view, simply put: “heat accounts for nearly half of all energy consumption and 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions”(source).
The group argues that ‘an overhaul of the energy performance of the UK’s total emission is needed, with nearly 15% of the UK’s total emissions coming from heating homes’. With heating bills becoming both a form of mental and physical stress for many Britons, Insulate Britain protesters had the aim of the UK Government producing a long-term actionable plan to be presented at COP26, as a demonstration of their purpose to carry forward the proposed demands. The conference, however, left many disappointed with the UK government’s promises.
The group has been working to raise awareness of these issues through a “campaign of civil resistance”, primarily road blocks. Protesters have held banners in front of oncoming traffic, plastered the roads in blue paint, and many have opted to physically sit down to block traffic on major roads. Some protesters have even willingly glued their hands and faces to the motorway, in a bid to disrupt traffic until the government addresses their key demands to do more to insulate British homes.
Why have they been attracting so much attention?
What has made IB - labelled ‘eco zealots’ by The Daily Mail - such a hot topic is that they have split public opinion. A poll by YouGov from October 2021 found that “72%... opposed the protesters' actions, with 18% supporting the actions”, with one video surfacing of a motorist driving into IB protestors and countless others showing motorists forcibly moving activists from the roads.
The primary issue which many have with IB’s methods is that they are targeting people - mostly working people - who do not directly hold the political power to implement the relevant policy on housing insulation. Writing in Bright Blue, Shota Shiukashvili argues that:
“Through disrupting and in some cases endangering citizens’ wellbeing and lifestyle, Insulate Britain turns away people who otherwise would have supported their cause as well as losing current supporters, ultimately discrediting their cause”.
The police force haven’t been particularly sympathetic towards the IB campaigners, with confrontations between IB protesters and the police resulting in around 400 arrests so far. Yet this is part of IB’s strategy of highlighting the seriousness of the current climate emergency. Hertfordshire Chief Superintendent Nick Cavaney added that, “Not only is purposely blocking a highway incredibly dangerous, (but) it also affects countless members of the public who are inconvenienced as a result”.
The Conservative government has also been more or less unanimous in their dislike of IB, with Boris Johnson labelling IB as ‘irresponsible crusties’ and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps calling the protest “reckless”. Injunctions have now been approved by the high court which have made it illegal to participate in activities which obstruct traffic and prevent access to 4,300 miles of motorways and major A roads. Home Secretary Priti Patel strongly supported the injunctions along with stern police action, labelling IB “Guerrilla” activists who “cannot keep disrupting and endangering people’s lives”.
Who has shown support for Insulate Britain?
On the other hand, there are many who support IB. Writing in Novara Media, Alex King concludes that:
“It is high time we take a leaf out of Insulate Britain’s book, and coalesce around the key demand of domestic retrofit. Doing so will cut emissions, reduce fuel poverty, transform the economy and keep climate breakdown at the forefront of our politics. Climate activists must push for this new common sense”.
Liam Norton, a 36 year old Electrician and spokesperson for IB spoke on the purpose of the protest:
“What we are saying is the country needs to come together to fight an existential threat as we have done many times in the past. If we do not create a national programme to decarbonise our homes then this country we love will be destroyed, that's just the reality of physics”.
There have also been shows of support from famous voices, including MP Caroline Lucas and House of Lords members Natalie Bennett and Jenny Jones, with Greta Thunberg defending IB’s tactic of blocking roads, explaining that; “To make clear, as long as no-one gets hurt ... then I think sometimes you need to anger some people”.
However, in spite of the supposed unpopularity of their methods, the issue at hand is serious and real: 10,000 people in the UK die annually as a result of fuel poverty. For those on low-incomes, the climate crisis has introduced difficult decisions in their day-to-day life, with millions of Brits having to choose between paying for heating bills and having a hot dinner (a dilemma known as ‘eating or heating’). Aside from the fact that Britain’s homes are highly emitting, these daily choices show the reality that Insulate Britain is fighting to change, and is the reason they say that they will continue to protest until a change of jurisdiction comes.
The UK government is due to make actionable plans to tackle climate impact, but the methods in which to persuade them towards this remains contentious. What do you think of the role being played by Insulate Britain and the role of civil disobedience?
Edited by Michael Anderson