Leading locally on retrofitting

Shropshire and Shrewsbury Councillor Julian Dean looks at how local Greens in power are driving the retrofit agenda across the UK.

An assorted series of houses

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Cllr Julian Dean

The UK currently has the least energy-efficient housing stock in Europe, with 19 per cent of national carbon emissions coming from heating buildings, 77 per cent of which comes from heating homes. 85 per cent of the current housing stock will still be in use in 2050. Astonishingly, despite the alarming figures, homes that will require retrofitting are still being built. Given the scale of the task of decarbonising the UK's leaky housing stock, Greens in power are seeking to prioritise this issue at a local level.

The top-down, short-term government funding model for retrofit is flawed for many reasons, not least of which is the fact civil servants don’t have a detailed understanding of local housing conditions or of local supply chains and skills availability. Greens believe that councils can and should take the lead on retrofitting.

Greens in power have helped push the Lewes-convened Sussex partnership of seven councils, which includes Green-led Brighton and Hove. The partnership has begun carrying out detailed audits of its own council housing stock to assess the best and most cost-effective interventions for decarbonisation and cutting fuel bills.

10 ‘archetypes’ have been identified, with a menu of interventions considered against each. These identify embedded emissions involved in installation, upfront costs of the interventions, and running costs. Crucially, this ‘archetype’ work will be available to others,  reducing the need for other partnerships and councils to repeat the full exercise. 

The work is also expected to enable quicker assessments for housing association, private rented and owner-occupied homes. The seven Councils in Sussex – often referred to as the Lewes model – have collectively planned spending of £1bn on their 40,000 homes between now and 2030. The intention is to reconfigure this spending so that it addresses energy efficiency and decarbonisation alongside repairs and upgrades. 

Heat networks that distribute heat through a number of homes are key to decarbonisation and tackling the cost of living crisis. The Committee on Climate Change calls for 18 per cent of homes to be heated using heat networks. The challenges and inefficiencies involved in a home-by-home approach in high-density areas and multiple-home buildings make this the first-choice approach in many circumstances. Heat networks can be highly efficient, and the infrastructure can remain in social ownership, so they also play an important role in ensuring a fair transition to decarbonised homes.

A good example of a large-scale scheme is the Bunhill Heat and Power scheme in Islington, which heats over 1,300 homes plus a school, using otherwise wasted heat from the London Underground. Where Greens are in power in York, the City Council is looking into low carbon district heating in mixed-use areas in the city, including homes and commercial buildings. The ‘Ambient Loop’ system would use ambient heat sources – ground, air, or river – plus waste heat, such as that coming from commercial fridges or IT equipment.

While council and social housing are starting to bring together a plan for retrofit, the private sector has barely begun. In particular, the private rented sector is home to some of the worst energy-performing properties, and intervening in this area is made more difficult because tenants are often vulnerable to losing their homes should they press for improvements.

Greener councils are helping to play a crucial role in ensuring households can get access to the right advice and quality work, by building a community of quality local traders through their own partnership procurement; working with training providers; and by regulating, enforcing and rooting out bad practice so far as their powers allow them to.

Already, some councils support cheaper lending through council-backed operations such as local banks or not-for-profit lenders. For example, North Somerset, where Greens are part of the administration, supports the Lendology Community Interest Company, which lends to householders on behalf of councils for home improvements and energy efficiency measures.

Just as people-as-workers need a just transition to clean, sustainable, secure work, people-as-householders need a fair route to comfortable, secure, decarbonised homes that are affordable to run. That is a key objective wherever Greens are in power.