British Activists Block Roads, Get Jailed Fighting for ... Insulation?

Leaky homes are responsible for carbon emissions, and thousands live in energy poverty.

Highway 9

Insulate Britain

These are the Highway 9 activists who have been convicted of contempt of court for breaking an injunction prohibiting them from blocking a highway. They are demanding the government insulate British homes. In a statement issued after they were imprisoned:

"By imprisoning us, the government shows its cowardice. They would rather lock up pensioners than insulate their homes. They would rather lock up teachers than create thousands of proper jobs. They would rather lock up young people than take practical steps to reduce emissions. They will lock us up and leave thousands to die of cold this winter. We knew we would face prison when we took this action, but we could not stand by while the government betrays the general public. Following the widely recognised failure of our government at COP26, we are continuing to ask them to get on with the job: of cutting carbon emissions; of insulating cold and leaky houses; of protecting the people of this country from climate collapse, because the lives of our children and those of all future generations hang in the balance."

Insulate Britain was a small but noisy group that got a lot of people very angry because, as we all know, nothing is worse than somebody who isn't in a car slowing traffic. But on Saturday, November 20, about 400 people showed up to protest the imprisonment of the Highway 9, and about 124 were arrested for blocking Lambeth Bridge.

According to Insulate Britain's statement: "The majority of those arrested have never participated in an Insulate Britain roadblock. They were moved to take action by the criminal inaction of this government, with speakers referring to the nine people imprisoned last week as ‘political prisoners." So it is is becoming a much bigger deal.

protesters in street

Insulate Britain

As a writer and architect, I have long promoted increased insulation—it is part of the Passive House standard we write about so often. But I have also complained that insulation is boring and invisible and inconspicuous. Unless you are a Passive House nerd, it is hard to get worked up over it.

covered in ink
protester covered in ink.

Insulate Britain

As an activist, I have attended rallies when cyclists are killed and have supported many organizations. But when I first saw photos of older people gluing themselves to roads, getting pushed by cars, getting ink sprayed in their faces, getting picked up and carried away by police, I thought taking all this risk and abuse over insulation was odd. Particularly because insulation is only part of the solution. As architect Paul Testa wrote in October 2021:

"I need to start by saying that I completely agree with Insulate Britain’s core aims and demands. They are incredibly brave; sacrificing their freedom to raise awareness of the increasing urgency of improving our housing stock." But he notes that it is not so simple. "Buildings are complex systems, and unintended consequences are common and often worse than the cold house they replaced."

I was also going to remind readers of the limits and problems of insulation, quoting Harold Orr complaining that just insulating misses the big hunks of air leakage and uninsulated basements. But if you look at the master report from Insulate Britain issued in September, they know all this. The report reads: "Insulation is a large part of the ‘Fabric First’ approach that will reduce the heat demand of the house and make it greener and cheaper to run. It is done following a full understanding of the building and the residents’ needs." They also note that "making houses less draughty and more air tight is an important way of reducing heat loss." This is a serious document that goes way beyond just insulation.

Calling out insulation is really a simplification of the issue. It is really more of a metaphor for climate action. Spokesperson Liam Norton recently told the Thompson Reuters Foundation that Insulate Britain wanted to pick a subject that people could understand and relate to. Norton said: "We wanted to transcend environmentalism, so it wasn't about dolphins and polar bears. What speaks to every single person in Britain is their home."

Treehugger spoke to Norton, and asked about the name Insulate Britain: He told us:

"Obviously, Retrofit Britain wasn't as sexy. Insulate Britain just sort of rolled off the tongue a little bit better. So for the social housing, part of the first demand, we wanted to just pick something that potentially we could win on. So that was potentially an easier thing. In the in the first demand, it was just to insulate social housing as a stop gap just to protect the poorest in our society. And there was also an element to for the social justice aspect of what it was that we were trying to do, which was bring people out of fuel poverty."
Insulate pritain stopping traffic

Insulate Britain

I reached out to architects I knew in the United Kingdom to find out what they thought of Insulate Britain. One responded:

"I certainly support what Insulate Britain are doing – it does sound like asking for something simple, but I think this is part of something that I know you already talk about a lot – that we already have all the solutions we need, we just need to start using them. Our government has a pretty poor track record of encouraging retrofit, especially when you look at countries like France (who have publicly available guidance and support) and Italy (who have been giving tax breaks for retrofit since the 1980s). The government here has recently announced subsidies for air source heat pumps, but it really shows a lack of awareness that they haven’t coupled these with support for fabric upgrades. It’s also important to say that we have some of the leakiest housing stock in Europe, and fuel poverty is also a real issue here.
That being said, as an architect I’m clearly part of the more climate engaged / activist learning type. I think the everyday architect did at first “agree with what they are demanding but not their methods” but I think the tide is turning a bit here and that frustration is building with the government and people are starting to come around to the idea that the disruption that Insulate Britain causes is necessary."

Architects Declare and the Architects Climate Action Network issued a joint statement in support of the aims of Insulate Britain.

"Insulate Britain is demanding that this low carbon retrofitting programme is rolled out immediately and completed by 2030. We realise that it would take a huge and coordinated commitment of finances and resources from our government to do this; much like (although a lot less expensive than) their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Insulate Britain campaign is highlighting one aspect of the housing crisis in this country, the warnings have been given and the science is clear, we must act now, any more delay is simply irresponsible. The industry is ready, people are in need and the government must show the leadership necessary in this emergency."

Insulate Britain's tactics have certainly got people aggravated. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called them "irresponsible crusties who are basically trying to stop people going about their day's work and doing considerable damage to the economy." Injunctions were issued so that "anyone who causes misery to motorists may face prison." They have not yet passed British laws making it legal to run down protesters with cars, as they are doing in some U.S. states.

But we know that stopping traffic is just about the most attention-getting thing that any protester can do because the cars must move at all costs. The anger and vitriol directed against Insulate Britain is extraordinary. Perhaps this all says more about people and their cars than it does about Insulate Britain, which notes in a statement: "We agree that disrupting everyday life for ordinary people is unacceptable. The failure of Boris Johnson and his government to cut carbon emissions will lead to endless disruption of everyday life for ordinary people."

Norton told Treehugger the decisions to block roads were all about the carbon, and was also inspired by the Freedom Riders in the U.S. in the '60s, and they weren't particularly popular either.

"We had this idea that the M 25 [highway] was at the heart of the carbon way of life in this country. and those, those freedom riders in the in the 60s, were criticized by absolutely everybody, that their 75% of Americans thought that they were in the wrong for basically, asking, the black person should be able to sit anywhere they'd like on a bus. And it's similar today that we've gone into the heart of the carbon way of life, and we've disrupted it. And we've said to the general public that this is no longer a single issue. This is about the existence, then this is about whether we all live or die. This is transcending environmentalism, this is something that you do not get to be a bystander in."
"And so what we're saying is that this carbon way of life is obscene. And we have the moral right, to disrupt it. And we have the moral right to demand that our government either gets out the way and lets ordinary people get on with the job of decarbonizing or they introduce programs such as Insulate Britain are asking for which is starting the just decarbonisation process."

The speaker in this tweet, the partner of one of the arrested Highway 9, notes that "any architect or economist could tell you that if the government were serious about climate change, retrofitting homes is one of the first steps you would take." She also notes the government would rather imprison pensioners (as many Insulate Britain activists are) than fix their homes.

It was a big crowd. It might actually be a turning point. When asked about this, Norton told Treehugger:

"Oh, yeah. 124 were arrested on Saturday. Many of those were arrested for the first time because they're so disgusted basically, about what this government's doing. And, yeah, so. So we'll see what happens if they lock another 10 people up, and I do fully expect more people to turn out. But also, there's the other potential that people are going to prison for contempt of court without a jury, which is like, pretty unprecedented in terms of British legal history, in terms of just people that are just sitting in the road."

So perhaps blocking traffic to demand insulation isn't such a bizarre idea, but part of a much larger decarbonization strategy. Perhaps more of us in the built environment professions should be joining them in the streets because it is a much bigger story than just insulation.

Here is an interesting video from The Guardian, showing Insulate Britain in action: