The Lewes Model explained

Our co-leaders’ vision to deliver warmer homes will follow the “The Lewes Model” – what does this entail? Green councillor and leader of Lewes District Council Zoe Nicholson lays out the plan.

New build house
Zoe Nicholson

Last week, our co-leaders set out a vision to help Green councillors deliver warmer homes, green jobs, and lower carbon by retrofitting social housing at scale. The cost of living is soaring and the climate crisis is getting ever more urgent. These are both crises caused in part by the shocking state of the UK’s housing, yet the Government is barely lifting a finger to insulate homes. That’s why Green councils like Lewes District Council, where I am the leader, are taking a lead. 

The co-leaders referred in their vision to “The Lewes Model”. What is that? The Lewes model is an ambitious plan that could allow local councils to transform their local retrofit sectors, lifting people out of fuel poverty, creating jobs, and slashing carbon emissions. Here’s how it would work.  

Starting with social housing

As Green councillors, we know that climate action can bring other benefits for fuel poverty, health, and warmer homes. There’s nowhere better to focus that action than on social housing, where many of our most fuel-poor and most vulnerable residents live. Focussing our efforts on improving energy efficiency in these homes can bring down fuel bills for those who need it most. 

We’ve teamed up with six other local councils in our area to create a programme for insulating and installing renewable energy for 40,000 social homes across our region, one of the largest retrofit programmes in the country. By targeting the housing directly in our control, we can help kickstart comprehensive retrofitting across all housing sectors in our local authority area. 

Collective financial firepower

But where will the money come from to retrofit those homes? We’re always hearing about how skint councils and housing associations are, and that is true when you look at them in isolation. We’ve found a way around that by pooling resources with the other six councils in our area and creating a £1 billion fund. That enables us to tackle those 40,000 homes, and at that scale, we get huge economies of scale. 

A retrofit task-force

Retrofitting is a notoriously complex field of work, requiring collaboration between energy and construction industries, architects, behaviour change experts, local councils, community energy companies and the public. That’s why we are setting up a taskforce to coordinate between these various elements. The taskforce will lead on identifying what needs to be done to deliver retrofitting across different social housing stocks, coordinate the training to skill up the workforce, and ensure that opportunities for installing renewable energy are maximised. 

Crucially, this will be local authority-led. As we’ve seen with the failure of the Green Homes Grant and other central government schemes, trying to coordinate a retrofit programme from Westminster just doesn’t work – it needs the local knowledge that only local councils to make it happen. And in Lewes, Green councillors are taking the view that if we don’t do it, who will?

A local supply-chain

You might have heard of the Preston Model. The Lewes Model takes that idea of a localised economy, with supply chains that keep economic value and jobs within the area instead of outsourcing them, and applies it to the retrofit sector. There’s a challenge here, as decades of stop-start funding for the retrofit sector and a lack of training and investment has left the sector notoriously short on workers. That is why we are prioritising training through the taskforce as set out above, but, crucially, we are also making sure that the jobs that will be created stay local and add value to our economy. At a time of increasingly precarious work, that is more important than ever.

Scaling up

We have to go beyond retrofitting social housing if we are to meet carbon reduction targets, not to mention ending the awful circumstances of fuel poverty and cold homes. The vast majority of housing in the UK is private sector – either owner-occupier (over 60 per cent) or privately-rented (approximately 20 per cent) – and people living in these houses don’t have the benefit of a local authority able to achieve economies of scale to bring down the cost of works. But that is another beauty of the Lewes Model – by investing in the creation of a local, stable supply chain and workforce, we can bring down the price of retrofitting for all households who can then access that market. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should let the Government off the hook when it comes to making sure our housing stock is brought up to standard. But in Lewes, we are demonstrating that we can lead a bottom-up strategy. What we do need Government funding for is to expand this scheme, but, in the absence of serious Government action, Green councillors are rolling up our sleeves and moving ahead.