What did we learn from Climate and Sustainability in Housing 2022?

Ewan Fulford, Policy Officer, National Housing Federation, 25 May 2022

At the end of a really exciting two-day conference, I’d like to outline a few of the key lessons and takeaways from Climate and Sustainability in Housing 2022.

Thank you to everyone who attended, as well as all our wonderful speakers. Special thanks to the BBC’s Climate Editor Justin Rowlatt who did a fantastic job of chairing and brought real energy to each session. 

I have outlined some key takeaways below, but what stood out for me was the commitment and pioneering spirit of the housing association sector which is leading the way in efforts to meet the UK’s national target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

We’re seeing real ambition in the sector

During the chair’s opening remarks, Justin Rowlatt mentioned a word he had recently learned: solastalgia, meaning the feeling of distress in response to environmental change. This feeling is understandable given the breadth of challenges we're facing. 

There is the need to bring the energy efficiency of social housing up to EPC C by 2030, high inflation affecting supply chains and a skills gap to contend with – and all compounded by the cost of living crisis.

Despite these challenges, I left this year’s conference feeling optimistic about the role housing associations are playing. Reflecting on last year’s conference, it feels as though a great deal of progress has been made and that the way forward is clearer than ever.

There were many accounts of the challenges and solutions encountered by housing associations, including fitting heat pumps, navigating the planning system and ensuring residents are front and center of work done to their homes. Last year, we published our decarbonisation guide which should provide some clarity.

Elizabeth Froude, chair of the NHF Sustainability Strategy Group summed up the ambition of the sector: "partnership, flexibility, agility and resolve". Given that housing associations are already facing the challenge of decarbonisation head on, I am hopeful we can move away from solastalgia and towards optimism.

Decarbonisation is inseparable from our social purpose 

With the news yesterday that the fuel cap is likely to rise by £800 in October, keeping sight of our social purpose is as important as ever. One of the most striking statistics of the day came from Dame Jo da Silva, Global Director of Sustainable Development at Arup, who suggested around 95% of social housing tenants could be experiencing fuel poverty by this autumn.

There was clear recognition in all sessions that the cost of living and decarbonisation must be addressed together. Steve Coffey, Chief Executive of Torus explained that the cost of living crisis has moved discussions around insulation and retrofit from a "theoretical to a real life issue" for residents. Retrofit is a real opportunity to improve material conditions for residents, which, in turn, would lower heating costs and improve issues around damp and mold.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Nick Robins, Professor in Practice for Sustainable Finance at LSE, discuss how the social purpose of housing associations extends to how we carry out building works. It’s key that the workers involved are paid a living wage and that we keep sight of our diversity and inclusion mission.

Money, money, money

A dominant question, of course, was who is going to pay for all these works moving forward and how? There are enormous prices attached to decarbonisation with one speaker suggesting it would cost on average £25,000 to decarbonise each of their homes.

We were joined on day one by Caroline Whittey, Interim Programme Director of Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund at BEIS. Following the first wave of funding, wave two is likely to be available this autumn. Caroline stressed that housing associations should begin planning their applications now and that free support is available through the Social Housing Retrofit Accelerator.

The government has pledged a further £2.8bn by 2030. The sooner we can access these funds, the sooner the work can begin. We need more clarity on funding streams after 2025 to unlock supply chains and build confidence.

There were further discussions on funding, with Claire Tracey, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer at Nationwide Building Society, who explained that housing providers can access incentivised loans, with the lowest interest rates for organisations who reach or surpass their KPIs.

There is no silver bullet

I enjoyed a fascinating session on the implementation of heat systems, including discussion about how best to reach decarbonisation targets. There was a consensus that the case for heat pumps stacks up, for both residents and housing associations as long as it’s approached in the right way. There was emphasis on the need for a 'fabric first' approach and to engage residents early in the process.

There was also a discussion about the role of hydrogen. Dr Jan Rosenow, Principal and European Programme Director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, was convincing in his argument that hydrogen is likely to play a limited part at this stage. The takeaway statistic was that it currently takes five times as much electricity to produce the same amount of energy through hydrogen as it would for a heat pump. There may be uses for hydrogen in other industries, particularly aviation, but it has no role in decarbonisation for housing associations.

We need to work together across and beyond our sector

A theme throughout the conference was the need for collaboration across the housing sector and with external companies. There are challenges in relation to supply chains but hopefully, through working together, these can be minimised moving forward.

What will also be key is sharing knowledge between housing associations. The conference was filled with examples of innovative working practices and we hope that conversations started here will continue.

You can find the full list of speakers and agenda on the conference website.

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