Sustainability & decarbonisation

While the UK government has set a target for the nation to be carbon neutral by 2050, many local authorities are aiming to achieve net carbon zero by 2030, with 74% declaring a climate emergency. For housing organisations to achieve this goal will require a huge commitment in time and money. The latest Civica roundtable gathered representatives from the sector to discuss what it will take to become more sustainable.

Of the organisations participating, most were focused on bringing stock up to scratch, getting to an EPC rating of C or above. But there was also a general admission that the government heat and buildings strategy’s focus on EPC C really isn’t enough. Adding some insulation and switching gas boilers to heat pumps needs to be part of a wider project educating residents, gathering data on housing stock and lowering emissions from the wider organisation.

Not only does focusing on EPC ratings miss many crucial elements, it also fails to take the bigger picture into account. Decarbonisation is deeply linked with other environmental, social and governance goals. Lowering carbon emissions can’t be done at the expense of creating disparity between residents’ energy bills, for example. And, of course, a good EPC rating doesn’t necessarily mean a house is nice to live in.

Data is the driver of change

The majority of roundtable participants admitted their organisations are lacking enough data to make definitive plans for decarbonisation. Lack of information about existing stock means it’s impossible to work out the potential costs of reaching net zero – and it’s harder to access funding.

For example, the first round of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) needed huge amounts of detail that many organisations simply don’t have – and won’t have the capacity to gather in time. Data is a key priority in these early stages of sustainability improvements. What properties are already above EPC C? Which need improving? Are these in tower blocks or smaller buildings?

Finance and funding

As part of its ‘Decarbonising the Housing Association Sector’ report, Savills found the cost of environmental improvements will be anywhere from £35bn to £58bn across the UK. The wide range shows just how uncertain things are – the same property could cost £10,000 or over £20,000 depending on the required standard.

It’s important to note though, that every organisation has a business plan with associated costs. Some works might be already accounted for and some costs could be transferred from one budget to another. However, there’s no denying that reaching net zero is going to be expensive for the sector.

Organisations are gearing up for round two of the SHDF. But given the complexity and timeframes of the previous rounds, many are wary of committing too much. One organisation raised investment by releasing a new bond. Others are exploring partnerships with contractors who will apply for funding on their behalf. Other pots are starting to appear – for example the revived Renewable Heating Incentive – so it’s important to be ready.

Winning hearts and minds

As if gathering data and securing funding weren’t enough of a challenge, sustainability is not simply a case of making improvements and moving on..

Organisations need to communicate the benefits of environmental improvements early on. Many people in social housing are over 60, a group not previously known for being early adopters of technology, although the pandemic has caused a shift here. If they’re to give up their existing log fires and gas boilers, they need to see how they could save money and be more comfortable.

Attendees at the session also pointed out the bad press heat pumps have been receiving – probably because residents were never told what to expect or how to get the most out of them. Technology isn’t a silver bullet – it must be accompanied by education and engagement to make sure it’s used properly.

Next steps to take
  • There is funding out there, with potential for much more to come. But organisations must be ready – those who don’t have Environmental, Social and Green credentials to hand or projects in the pipeline risk falling further behind. 
  • Find some easy wins. Whether it’s rethinking tree care or electrifying vehicles, there are lots of straightforward ways to make an organisation greener. Once it’s part of the culture, sustainability should become second nature. 
  • Don’t just focus on the works. One of the biggest challenges will be influencing behaviour – organisations need good communication internally and with customers to achieve success.
Think of the big picture

While it’s a big task just bringing existing stock up to standard, it’s important to consider the wider goal.

For example, one way of bringing your stock to EPC C would be to dispose of anything that can’t be improved. But that just shifts the problem elsewhere. Sustainability is about improving our whole environment, not just meeting one organisation’s targets. It’s about the wider outcomes we want to achieve, not just for residents via greener, more energy efficient homes, but for wider society too.

Housing organisations are passionate about making a difference. Sustainable housing is absolutely achievable and the key lies in data-driven digital technology. This can help facilitate resident engagement, drive better decisions regarding housing stock and measure energy efficiency. Now is the time to start looking for new partnerships, changing behaviours and putting plans in place for decades in the future.