Five key takeaways from the Climate Change and Sustainability in Housing 2021 conference

Rory Hughes, 22 April 2021

With COP26 drawing nearer, global discussions about a green recovery from the pandemic ongoing and the announcement that the UK government will strengthen their climate targets, the timing of this week’s Climate Change and Sustainability in Housing 2021 conference couldn’t have been better. Indeed, the (renewable) energy surrounding each discussion was palpable, even online. Here are a few of my key takeaways from the event.

The challenge facing social housing is big, but we are ready to be pioneers

The conference began with many speakers including NHF CEO Kate Henderson, Member of Youth Parliament Safaa Shreef and Baroness Brown of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) emphasising the scale of the emergency we face. The UK has made some good progress toward net zero by 2050. However, large chunks of our reductions have been secured through the outsourcing of emissions ‒ particularly production ‒ to other countries and the successful shift away from coal-fired power. While this is welcome, this week’s government announcement strengthening our climate targets, means we have a lot more work to do. In the words of the CCC, the ‘2020s must be the decisive decade of progress and action.’

Everybody in attendance was clear that social housing can, wants to and is uniquely placed to lead that progress. The extensive diversity in our sector means we own housing stock of every possible type and know how to innovate. As a result, our sector’s pioneering journey to net zero will in turn provide a roadmap for the rest of the built environment.

Resident engagement is essential

A consistent theme throughout the conference was the importance of making sure that decarbonisation is done with ‒ and not to ‒ residents. Discussions on resident engagement to date have often focused on alleviating fuel poverty, creating more comfortable and decent homes and reducing energy bills. Whilst undoubtedly essential angles, many attendees proposed building on these household questions and moving away from the use of terms like ‘fuel poverty’ in line with recent findings by PlaceShapers and Tpas on climate and resident engagementIn the, ‘Engaging and enthusing residents in the fight against climate change’ session, discussions focused on how we can engage residents more holistically in the collective ‘mission’ of net zero. How can we support residents to become green leaders and advocates in their local community? How can we empower residents to shape the design of buildings and community infrastructure to boost the prevalence of green spaces, active and public transport and build-in climate resilience?

Furthermore, it is clear that without strong resident engagement we simply won’t be successful. The CCC clearly describes how the pace of our success to net zero depends largely on how much,households and businesses support early regulatory approaches, and minimise their use of energy through behaviour change and the highest uptake of energy efficiency measures.’

We need better analytical tools

In the opening plenary, the panellists were asked what they would do to support decarbonisation if they had a magic wand. The concept of green passports was identified by all of them as a potential “game changer” and attendees were equally enthused. Throughout the conference, delegates emphasised the need for similar initiatives to help democratise and decentralise climate knowledge in the housing sector. Without doing so, we can’t ensure every piece of investment we make on the ground is both impactful and irreversible.

The vital role of government

The government's fortuitously-timed announcement regarding their improved climate targets certainly changed the conversations at the conference and, in doing so, demonstrated the vital importance of the government to the decarbonisation agenda. Much of our sector’s ability to succeed in this collective mission will be determined not just by an abstract commitment to knowing that we must do it, but also a confidence that we can do it. Only the government is able to build this confidence in our sector and in external investors at the scale needed.

However, it was also made clear that the government must back up their communications with ambitious, long term, and secure funding packages which take into account the competing pressures on our sector including building safety and the wider housing crisis.

Climate tech is cool and we should be more excited about it

The science behind climate breakdown and its solutions can be intimidating and difficult to engage with for those who are not science buffs. This is a problem because it is clear that our ability to enthuse colleagues, residents and stakeholders will be essential to our success in reaching net zero. At the ‘Tech you can trust’ session I was struck frankly by just how ‘cool’ green technologies are! Our sector really does have an opportunity to help invent the future of housing in the UK by deploying radical new climate technologies en masse. That includes dancing insulation robots (Betty), Passivhaus design and the use of drones to 3D image buildings.

In April 2019, Greta Thunberg told the UK Parliament that avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking... we must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.’ While many questions remain about our sector’s metaphorical (and literal ceilings) I am confident that, this week, we have taken the vital step of laying the foundations for decarbonising social housing. 

We'd like to thank our speakers, session chairs, sponsors and exhibitors for their support and involvement in the conference. And a special thanks to Ian Wardle for chairing the conference.

You can read more about our work on climate and how to get involved here.