During a summer of instability, what progress has social housing made decarbonisation and net zero?

Kevin Garvey, 16 November 2022

The past six months have been a busy time for our work on net zero. In amongst sudden and dramatic developments in Westminster - and now with COP27 underway in Egypt - we’ve continued our work with the sector and the government on decarbonising homes and I wanted to give you a quick summary of the work we’ve been doing since our last update. 

Our annual Climate Change and Sustainability in Housing 2022 took place over two days in May. Among other key messages from the conference was a reminder of the ‘commitment and pioneering spirit of the housing association sector’ in efforts reduce carbon emissions. There was also a clear recognition that the cost of living crisis and decarbonisation must be addressed together.

While housing associations have been doing amazing work to reduce carbon emissions and improve insulation in homes, you have reminded us of the challenges the sector faces. Homes that may be especially hard or even impossible to decarbonise is just one of these. This can be because the measures required are uneconomic, logistically or technically problematic, or the impact on residents or others is unacceptable. So in July, together with the Local Government Association (LGA) we commissioned new research into why some homes are harder to decarbonise – and what can be done about it. We found that just 2% of social homes are technically hard to decarbonise, and we’re confident that new technology and changing regulations will help address these challenges by 2050. However, 5% of social homes will cost more than £20,000 each to decarbonise. Regulatory, supply chain and technological barriers add to costs, and planning issues also prevent progress in some cases. Long term public funding will make a vital contribution to decarbonising all social homes. We launched these findings with an opinion piece in Inside Housing by NHF Chief Executive Kate Henderson together with David Renard, chair of the LGA’s Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board.

The biggest challenge for housing associations remains funding. We continue to work closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on the design and delivery of the second wave of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, which opened for applications in September. To help make the case for additional funding from the government we visited several projects from the Demonstrator and Wave 1 period, which highlight the good work taking place across the sector. One of the key lessons from these projects is how crucial the relationships are between residents, the local council, the housing association and the contractor.

As we all started looking ahead to winter, the cost of living crisis increasingly focused on soaring energy bills. At the NHF, we had already been highlighting the risk to heat network customers and those without a direct relationship with their energy supplier because they are not protected by the energy price cap. When the government announced help with the cost of energy, we were concerned about whether and how it would be applied to residents who don’t have a direct relationship with their energy provider. Through our engagement with senior officials at BEIS, we’ve helped demonstrate that these residents would miss out on the vital energy support packages. As part of this influencing campaign, we released a press release warning that 400,000 households were unprotected by energy price cap. BBC Breakfast reported our story and interviewed Kate Henderson. Kate was also interviewed live on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. The story was reported across BBC radio news bulletins on all national and regional stations as well as other nationwide radio stations. The research was reported in The Times, The Sun, The Independent, The Mirror, Evening Standard, FT, Sky News and many local news outlets. The government has now addressed this issue, confirming that heat neatwork residents and those who do not have a direct relationship with their energy supplier should be no worse off than other domestic customers. Understanding the urgency of the issue, we are continuing to engage with BEIS officials to work through the detail of how this support will be delivered.

We also worked to ensure housing associations were included in the government’s energy support package for businesses, reducing the financial pressure you and your residents will face. We continue to work with the government on the application of this funding and to secure funding for housing associations’ non-domestic energy costs beyond the initial six month time frame set out by the government.

Recognising that decarbonisation presents solutions to a number of cost of living challenges, we published new findings by our Research team in November highlighting that social housing residents would have their heating bills reduced by 42% if their homes were properly insulated and draught proofed. This analysis was used by the Press Association, and subsequently reported in over 200 media outlets including The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Big Issue, London Evening Standard and Inside Housing. It was also covered by Sky News and GB News.

In September and October, Kate and the Public Affairs team travelled to Liverpool and Birmingham to attend the Labour and Conservative party conferences. We had some good meetings which helped build good relationships with MPs. Kate also spoke on a series of panels which involved some great discussions on retrofit, planning and levelling up.

As well as working with BEIS on the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, we have responded to their consultation on the Net Zero Review. The review is chaired by Chris Skidmore MP and assesses approaches to net zero to better understand the impact on the UK public and economy. The review expects to report by the end of 2022.

We continue to engage with BEIS and DLUHC through our membership on the Net Zero Buildings Council. The Net Zero Buildings Council is a dynamic partnership between government, industry and third sector organisations. It focuses on the delivery and implementation of key objectives within the Heat and Buildings and Net Zero Strategies. In September, we hosted a social housing roundtable for Net Zero Buildings Council members where we discussed decarbonisation of the social housing sector and some useful next steps the group can take to further advance the net zero agenda.

Like many others, we are awaiting the Autumn Statement with interest and will be closely scrutinising any announcements that might impact the vital decarbonisation work of housing associations. We’re always keen to hear from our members about your work on the road and net zero, so do always feel free to get in touch with me.