New research sheds light on decarbonisation of social housing

Rob Cowley, 06 July 2022

As the annual report from the Climate Change Committee published last week highlights, the UK’s commitment to delivering a zero carbon economy by 2050 relies on eliminating the carbon emissions of all of our homes, including social homes, over the next 30 years. This will bring enormous benefits for residents and communities, as well as the economy and the wider environment, and housing associations are leading the way in this collective endeavour. 

Our guide to decarbonisation for housing associations sets out guiding principles for decarbonising social homes. It also explains the support we need from the government and highlights some of the uncertainties we face.

In an attempt to explore some of these uncertainties Housemark (the data, benchmarking, and insight company for the UK housing sector) has set up a decarbonisation research project. Last month, the results were published from the first piece of work in this project: a survey of 41 social landlords across the UK, devised by a steering group consisting of Housemark, the National Housing Federation, other trade bodies, decarbonisation experts and data/asset specialists. The survey respondents, who own 600,000 homes – about one in eight social homes in the UK – were asked about their decarbonisation plans.

Key findings

One of the most heartening findings was that housing association homes are starting from a relatively good place when it comes to improving energy efficiency. According to the government, a home meets the minimum energy efficiency standard if it is certified EPC C or above. The survey found that on average, 68% of social homes already meet this standard and 74% of landlords are ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ confident that they’ll achieve this by 2050.

In terms of timescales, 65% of landlords say they’ll reach the target by 2050 and the remaining 35% plan to decarbonise sooner. The survey suggests that one in eight social homes in the UK will meet the target by 2030. That rises to half by 2040.

Most landlords see building works as the starting point to improve energy efficiency. 84% have already started work on insulation, windows and doors. Over 40% expect to complete this ‘fabric first’ approach by 2029.

What about offsetting carbon emissions?

The 2050 target is a net calculation so, in theory, planting trees or other forms of carbon offsetting could be an alternative to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. However, participants in this survey expect to use little or no carbon offsetting. They prefer to invest in their own assets rather than pay for carbon to be captured on their behalf.


The survey highlighted a number of the challenges currently facing housing associations, the greatest of which is cost. Survey participants are budgeting £14,600 on average to decarbonise each existing property. This represents a total spend per property up to 2050, with most expenditure occurring in the 2030s and 2040s. Investment at this scale would require additional sources of funding. Landlords face difficult choices about whether to embrace debt, sales of stock, or a reduction in other activities. Meanwhile, there is no long-term assurance about grant funding. On top of this, once works had been completed, over half of the participants expected their newly energy efficient homes to be more expensive to maintain.

In addition to cost, decarbonisation can only succeed with effective resident engagement. There are key areas around the initial impact, ongoing cost, usage, and where the new technology might require a change in lifestyle. The research found that the most innovative landlords are in dialogue with residents to gather data and to model outcomes with them. These landlords are also making ongoing adjustments in the months after completing retrofit works.

Over 94% of landlords expect air source heat pumps will be the predominant form of water and space heating but at present, around 40% are still installing gas boilers, given that there is not yet an established alternative at scale.

Only about half the participants were able to provide calculations of greenhouse gas emissions. Findings suggest that accurate data is not yet widely available for this measurement. The biggest difficulty was with measuring indirect contributions, e.g., from residents, contractors and suppliers.

Landlords using contractors to complete EPC assessments are currently unable to access underlying data through DLUHC (as they are deemed personal to residents). This is hampering the process of grant applications to the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund.

About three quarters of participants identified skills gaps as a challenge and none were able to say they had no skills gaps internally. The most common skills gap was in maintenance work after retrofitting, followed by technical skills in monitoring building performance.

Hard to decarbonise homes

We know that housing associations have been concerned about any homes they manage that might be hard (or even impossible) to decarbonise. According to this survey, only 3% of housing stock may not achieve the target by 2050 due to the nature of the building. We will soon be publishing the findings from a separate research project into this issue.

You will find the survey summary report on the Housemark website.