Looking at the retrofit projects underway thanks to the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund

Kate Henderson, 02 August 2022

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting some of the residents who have benefitted from having their homes retrofitted using the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, and spoke to their landlords about the process.

The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund aims to upgrade social homes that are currently below Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) C. The fund is part of the government’s commitment to decarbonisation projects as part of their aim to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Applications for the pilot phase were invited at the end of 2020 by the Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department and it’s exciting these initial projects approach completion.

The pilot focuses on whole house retrofits to establish what works, what doesn’t, and how work can be scaled up for major investment programmes The pilot was also to establish how mature the market was for decarbonisation work.

Ahead of the next wave of funding, I visited a few of the beneficiaries from the demonstrator (pilot) project and the first wave of funding to see how housing associations are using it.

In June, I visited Orbit Group who are working with Stratford-on-Avon District Council to upgrade 69 homes using a whole house retrofit approach. The homes were a mix of houses and bungalows built between 1930 and 1960.

It was fascinating to see external wall and loft insulation being installed, energy efficient windows and doors, and new smart heating controls and ventilation. When I visited the contractors were hard at work and the first homes are due for completion any day now.

Following the success of the initial demonstrator phase, Orbit has secured a further £1.4m as part of the first wave of funding from the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund. An additional 70 Orbit properties will be upgraded in partnership with the West Midlands Combined Authority, and the works in Stratford-on-Avon will be extended to a further 66 properties. Alongside the government funding, Orbit is investing £4.6m to help better understand the scale of the challenge ahead and explore the impact of several different sustainable technologies in retrofitting homes.

In July, I visited Trent & Dove’s decarbonisation project in Uttoxeter, East Staffordshire. Trent & Dove joined a consortium led by Wychavon District Council which also includes Trident, Citizen and Rooftop. In total the consortium has put forward around 300 properties into the pilot.

The retrofitted homes I visited look smart and residents are already seeing the difference in warmth and energy costs in their homes. One resident I spoke to said her home, which has been retrofitted with energy efficient windows and doors and had new external wall and roof insulation said “it feels like a new home, I feel like I’ve won the lottery”.

From these visits it is really clear to see how crucial the relationships are between residents, the local council, the housing association and the contractor. They are key to the delivery of the current projects as well as the future development of skills, expertise and supply chains. Hearing from residents who had a positive experience of retrofit and can already feel the benefts, will also help generate more consumer confidence, not just for residents of social housing, but all tenures.

My colleague, Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the NHF has also been out to see retrofit projects first hand. She visited two projects by Clarion near Tonbridge, Kent and got to see homes at every stage of the retrofit process.

Catherine met a resident whose home had a new roof, new insulation and a new heating system. She was impressed that during the heatwave, she hadn’t needed to use a fan or open windows to keep cool. There were a few minor snagging problems – it was a demonstrator project after all – but overall the resident was really happy with the outcome and couldn’t believe the impact it had on her energy bills. The house looked great too.

The contractors explained how they’d had to detect and solve problems as they arose, working through issues that no-one else had ever come across. For example, what do you do with little awkward gaps to make sure there are no weak spots in the insulation where all the heat leaks out? Coming up with solutions to issues like these requires working with suppliers to develop new products and technologies as they go.

Catherine and I agreed it was evident from what we’d seen that there is a need for common standards and measures across the industry. Our recent report with the LGA on homes that are hard to decarbonise explores this in detail, making a case for why a space heating demand of 90KwH is a sensible target, which aligns with that used in the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund.

The new zero-rated VAT for energy saving materials has helped a lot but VAT on retrofit is still a complex area. This needs to be simplified and extended if retrofit is to be encouraged in favour of a ‘demolish and rebuild’ approach to decarbonisation.

We also need a consistent approach to planning across all local authorities, with additional training and support for planning officers and changes to the NPPF to better reflect the importance of decarbonisation in planning policy.

It is retrofit schemes like the ones we’ve visited, while still relatively small scale, that bring forward innovation and help develop supply chains. It is retrofit schemes like these that will ultimately help the whole sector deliver the huge programme of retrofit work we need to see over the coming years to play our part in helping the country reach net zero by 2050. And it is retrofit schemes like these that will help build consumer confidence, not just in social housing, but for all tenures.

While final thought from these visits is that decarbonisation, regeneration and levelling up should go hand in hand – it’s all about investing in quality, affordability, sustainability and community.

Get ready for the next wave of funding

£800m has been committed as part of the 2021 Spending Review settlement. The next wave will allocate as much of this funding as possible. We expect the window for applications to open late August or early September 2022. Unlike with the last wave of funding, housing associations can apply directly. Housing associations intending to bid should take advantage of the support available through the Social Housing Retrofit Accelerator.