Net zero is no small feat but the government and housing associations share the same goals

Lord Callanan, 18 November 2021

So far this year I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with social housing providers on several occasions. I hope this demonstrates how serious this government is about listening to and working with the sector – and how determined we are to support lower-income households during this huge collective drive as a nation to net zero.

During these discussions, I’ve been struck by the strong moral objective at the core of the sector’s approach. Many providers are already looking closely at ways to make their stock greener – not just for the sake of the planet but for residents, so that their homes are warmer, and their lives more comfortable. Here, the objectives of the government are very much aligned.

Net zero by 2050 is however no small feat. It means decarbonising around 30 million buildings, which currently account for roughly 30% of the UK’s carbon emissions. It means delivering new homes to rigorous standards, retrofitting at scale, and creating a new clean energy system to power it all.

The good news is that we are not tackling it from a standing start. The work of this government has already been wide ranging, ambitious and in many ways world leading. For starters we are directly investing over £9bn to make our buildings more energy efficient. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed to a £3.8bn Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund which is now well underway, with total committed funding at just over £1bn.

The initial Demonstrator project awarded funding to test innovative approaches to retrofitting at scale – things like Retrofit-in-a-box, where Nottingham City Homes are working with Energiesprong to develop a single box that can be attached to the side of a house, with renewable technologies, energy storage and smart controls in one place. There’s a remote-controlled robot that goes under floorboards adding insulation, making the process less disruptive for the householder. There are new factories manufacturing panels and other measures off site, again helping to lessen the impact of building work on residents’ lives. It’s all contributing to the approach at scale needed over the coming years. In the meantime, we launched the next round of funding over the summer, providing a further £160m to upgrade up to 38,000 more homes.

And it’s not the only way we are supporting lower income households to reach net zero. Each of our major retrofitting programmes is doing that, some £3.9bn of new funding for them announced when we published the Heat and Building Strategy recently. These schemes are already helping to improve places like Alfreton in Derbyshire, where hundreds of steel-sheeted properties were built cheaply by the British Steel and Iron Federation at the end of the Second World War. It was a short-term solution to the acute housing shortage at the time, but they have proved terribly energy inefficient. Government funding has improved not only the efficiency but the look of the buildings too, an example of the power of retrofitting to transform communities – socially, economically, and sustainably all at once.

The schemes are also contributing to the huge progress we are making in energy efficiency. Back in 2008 just nine per cent of UK homes had an Energy Performance of Band C or above – that number is now 40% and rising. In the socially rented sector, it is some 61%. More than a million people have been taken out of fuel poverty in the last five years alone.
The challenge now is to improve things even more rapidly. It’s vital any new homes we build are ready for the future. Lots of social housing providers are doing terrific work on the development side, and the Future Homes Standard means that from 2025 all newly built homes must be zero carbon ready. For existing homes, we’ve introduced new energy efficiency regulation in the domestic rented sector.

Then there is the new energy system needed to power these newly efficient homes. The Heat and Building Strategy sets out our ambition to phase out new and replacement natural gas boilers by 2035. We want to kickstart the heat pump market to support 600,000 installations per year by 2028. In the meantime, the government is introducing a three-year £450m Boiler Upgrade Scheme that will see households receive up to £5,000 to replace gas boilers. Again, we are clear that this is about kickstarting the market, laying the foundations to support the mass transition needed in the years ahead.

On infrastructure, the Strategy makes clear that we do not think there is currently a single silver bullet for heating homes. In fact, I commented recently how our approach is more of a silver buckshot. By that I mean that until we have maximised everything in terms of trialling, market-testing, and innovation, each of the major technology options should be pursued. We have set further ambitious targets to hit before the end of this decade – things like hydrogen heating on a village scale, and a Green Heat Network Fund.

Yet our biggest target – our main objective in government – is not simply to get to net zero for the sake of it, but to demonstrably improve people’s lives while doing so. Earlier this year I visited Chilton in County Durham, where I met several residents including 79-year-old Brenda Woods, whose whole street is now not only warmer and greener but looks smarter too. She told me her house was 111 years old and the external brickwork was black, discoloured by being near the mine. She told me the builders took such care, covering the cladding with an aged brick effect that looked “fantastic”.

“The house is so much warmer, it’ll save me money on my bills and it’s also helping the environment – so I couldn’t be happier,” she said.

Stories like Brenda’s confirm to me that the approach we are taking is the right one. Everyone talks about the cost of net zero, but there is also the potential to improve the lives of thousands of people at the same time. If we build on this work, making sure we continue to focus on these groups, we can turn that number into hundreds of thousands, potentially millions – communities all over the country that are warmer, healthier, more sustainable and more prosperous than they were before.

This is the government’s ultimate goal – and one that we know the social housing sector shares. It’s why I look forward to further engagement at many more events in the weeks and months ahead.