New research suggests that the UK's retrofitting industry needs to grow ten-fold if the UK is to decarbonise its housing stock at a suitable pace in line with climate science. This challenge is substantial. We are missing much of the skills, supply chains, and wider infrastructure to make this happen. The Government continues to talk the talk of decarbonisation and retrofitting, but has so far failed to put significant money where its mouth is.
For this challenge to be addressed we need central government, local government, businesses and residents working together.
Local government has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick-start efforts to tackle this by investing now in its own housing stock. And that’s exactly what Stroud District Council’s Housing Committee has proposed to do. The plan will see us investing £180m in the next 30 years to retrofit, insulate and decarbonise the Council's five thousand homes. This is part of the Council’s ongoing commitment to address the climate emergency as part of its wider Carbon Neutral 2030 strategy.
The impact of this investment will be significant. It will see a reduction in emissions of up to 24.5 per cent, with council tenants saving up to 11 per cent on fuel bills. This new investment will mean that, on average, council homes will meet Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) C ratings by 2030.
The Stroud District Council Housing Committee's plan, which was agreed this month, now needs full council support – if passed, the programme will be accelerated, with more money invested. It will first be targeting houses with the poorest SAP ratings, ensuring those that will benefit the most receive support first.
For those who don’t know, Stroud is run through a ‘Cooperative Alliance’ made up of 15 Labour Councillors, 13 Green Councillors and three Liberal Democrats. The Housing Committee is chaired by a widely respected long-standing Labour Councillor and the Vice-Chair is a newly elected Green Councillor, Chris Jockel. This level of investment stands as a testimony to the possibility of progressive politics in power. It also shows how a Green voice on the council over many years – Stroud being one of the first councils to elect a Green Councillor – has shifted the Overton window to such a degree that now these bold measures were agreed with little disagreement, even from the Conservative opposition.
There is good climate thinking behind focusing on residential properties. They currently account for the second-largest source of carbon in the district, about 17 per cent, following road transport. However, the five thousand homes the council owns is only a drop in a heavily polluted ocean. In this sense, there is a wider question about how the council can ensure that its investment can lead as a catalyst for action from within the private sector.
This ‘early’ – in terms of market economics, not climate necessity – investment can and must act as a guarantor of a base-level of demand within the region, in order for the private sector to sure up supply chains of skills, labour and technologies. Businesses will know that it’s the Stroud District where there will be decarbonisation and retrofit work taking place. As such, the District will offer a degree of security for medium-term business planning, and, crucially, can stress test the currently shaky supply chains as heat pump demand grows.
Council investment can also act as a catalyst for the training that is currently missing from the labour market. Stroud is well placed to deliver this with its highly praised Further Education (FE) college in Stroud.
But, and this can’t be stressed enough, these policy challenges could and should be fixed through central government intervention much more efficiently. This does not mean repeating the mistakes of the disastrous Green Homes Grant that installed just 49,000 efficiency measures to date, saving a meagre 0.04 per cent of total residential sector emissions, but instead focusing on the use of large-scale financial levers to enable bodies like local authorities to invest at scale.
It shouldn’t be up to local authorities to stretch their Housing Revenue Accounts to fund these projects. The Government could, with the stroke of a pen, free up borrowing from local authorities’ general reserves linked to expected savings to allow for much bigger investments. It could also be providing more strategically directed grant funding, which we know has a dramatic effect in bolstering local jobs and skills. These are, by definition, shovel ready ideas, with local authorities like Stroud pushing their finances to deliver as much as they can.
Lastly, all of this requires a public behaviour change campaign on a scale rarely seen. You can install as many heat pumps, insulation, and other energy efficiency measure as you want but if one doesn't empower people on how to interact with them efficiently, then we are doomed for failure. In Stroud, there is significant investment happening on improving council/tenant interactions, but much more needs to be done in an area traditionally characterised by poor engagement and basic service delivery. The success of the programme might well stand or fall on whether we get this piece of people-oriented work right. Only time will tell if we do or do not.
In Stroud, we are ambitious in our efforts to tackle the climate emergency and to offer residents safe, warm, and green homes to live in. We are putting as many pieces of this jigsaw together as possible. At this stage, it’s important to be open and honest about the challenges we are facing; finance, supply chains, skills, tenant engagement; and as we move forward, it’s important to also be honest about our successes, challenges and mistakes. This process will, in the medium-term, help to build confidence in the private sector, which is where we need super-sized action to occur if we are to meet the climate action targets that science dictates.
Details of the decision made by the Stroud Housing Committee can be seen on agenda item 6 on last month’s report pack to the committee.