Zehnder - Ambitious Decarbonisation Programme Set to Transform Social Housing

September 2021

Zehnder - Ambitious Decarbonisation Programme Set to Transform Social Housing

Improving the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock is not always a straightforward process. The UK’s existing building stock currently accounts for approximately 30% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. New housing only accounts for 1-2% of the total building stock each year, and 80% of the UK’s existing housing will still be in use by 2050. Tackling the climate crisis requires a rapid shift to low-carbon economies and decarbonisation of housing will be a dominant theme in the future.

World’s first detailed decarbonisation road map

In its recent Sixth Carbon Budget, the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) delivered the world’s first detailed road map for a fully decarbonised nation. The CCC’s new guidance to government – made up of nearly 1,000 pages across three reports – says the UK needs to cut its emissions by 78% below 1990 levels over the next 15 years and heralds a major transition for the economy and jobs. It is an ambitious report detailing the path for a green revolution.

The proposed transition will require changes to the way we live and how the UK economy operates, and to deliver this a major investment programme is required, in large measures by the private sector. This investment will be integral to the UK’s post-pandemic economic recovery over the next decade.

Getting to net-zero will require a massive expansion in renewable electricity generation. It will mean significant changes to how people travel, how land is used, and importantly, how buildings are heated. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is key – a project that can be carried out effectively at scale in the social housing sector. The government recently announced a 10-point green recovery plan, which includes funding of £1bn to insulate homes and public buildings, using the existing green homes grant and public sector decarbonisation scheme.

£50million commitment to the social housing sector

The government has set a target that by 2030 all social homes must be a minimum of EPC C (EPC – energy performance certificates – are a rating scheme to summarise the energy efficiency of buildings). Presently, 44% of social homes are below this standard. The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) Demonstrator will start the decarbonisation of social housing this year and support green jobs as part of the COVID-19 economic recovery plan.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has committed £50million to the demonstrator project, which aims to uncover the best approach for improving energy efficiency in social housing. Seventeen projects have been selected to receive a share of the funding. The funding, which will be matched by the successful councils, will improve the energy efficiency of 2,000 of the worst-performing social homes.

Improving energy efficiency: lessons learned

In the past, there was a rush to insulate homes, but it is now recognised that a single measures approach to improve energy efficiency has not worked. Insulating homes without adequate attention to ventilation has been an unmitigated disaster, resulting in the creation of airtight properties with an unhealthy moisture imbalance – one problem has been solved only to create another. This has largely been led by a haphazard grants system and inadequate funding.

Large scale retrofitting has also been hampered by a lack of cohesive planning. For future schemes, there should be a shift in emphasis towards more joined-up holistic thinking. We must now look at how buildings operate as a whole and integrate processes from design through to implementation, and beyond to consider resident behaviour. Economies of scale in retrofitting must also be realised.

The next steps: funding and a long-term strategy

The UK has the least energy-efficient housing stock in Europe. The Climate Change Committee has concluded that “the UK’s legally binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings.”

With the UK government’s carbon-neutral target only 30 years away, social landlords have hit the point where the cost of net zero should be factored into their long-term business plans. While the government has committed to reaching its net-zero target by 2050 and is the first major economy to enshrine such a commitment in law, funding for decarbonisation in the social housing sector will be crucial for success.

Research by Inside Housing recently revealed that retrofitting all social housing in the UK to meet the net-zero target will require an estimated £104bn of investment. The CCC report has concluded that UK homes are “not fit for the future” and that long-term strategies do not exist to get social housing ready for 2050. The government’s 10-point plan may look promising, but we need more than rhetoric or an overview to ensure we have homes that are good for the environment and good for the health of residents. We need a detailed strategy on how delivery and financing models can support the large-scale take-up of effective buildings retrofit.

Now is the time for political bravery and policy ingenuity. The question is, can the government deliver it?