Social housing’s contribution to stopping the climate crisis

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As Chief Executive of the Sustainable Energy Association (SEA), I am all too aware of the need to stop global warming. Our buildings are a significant contributor to carbon emissions, and we need to create living and working spaces fit for the future. This will require taking a technology agnostic approach as there is no one solution, and businesses, politicians and consumers working together to meet the challenge. These principles define the work we do at the SEA where we draw on a wide-ranging membership to shape how we think about, generate and use energy. Our members supply energy, manage homes, manufacture, distribute, install, retail or regulate a range of technologies and each of them is committed to ensuring that buildings are energy efficient, low-carbon and warm.

Thankfully, this vision doesn’t just belong to the SEA. It is shared by the Committee on Climate Change who recommended that the UK should set and pursue an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and this target was subsequently adopted by the UK parliament. Transitions will need to take place across all sectors as soon as possible if we are to reach this target, especially when we consider the scale of change required. The importance of improving the homes we live in was highlighted by the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy. The potential for reducing emissions in our buildings is huge. In the residential sector alone, which currently accounts for 22% of UK emissions, there is vast improvement required.

In taking on the net zero challenge, it would benefit us all to take example from those already leading the way. By doing this, we can better determine where to start. Social housing is a great example. Making up just over 17% of homes across the UK, social housing stock contributes just 10% to carbon emissions in the residential sector. The Government’s Standard’s Assessment Procedure (SAP) gives us an insight into why the sector is ahead, with social stock having an average SAP rating of 68 in 2017 whilst private rented and owner occupier sectors have a rating of 61. Greater uptake of wall insulation, dwelling composition and a higher proportion of flats prove some explanation. Given that it is already ahead of other housing sectors, the SEA believes that when it comes to reducing emissions within the residential sector, social housing and new build pinpoint where we should begin.

It is essential to prioritise new builds. These homes are the cheapest and easiest ones in which to minimise emissions and when we take account of the additional cost of retrofitting homes once build, this emphasizes the need for higher standards at this stage. Existing homes are a greater challenge but improving the energy efficiency of these homes is vital. It will not only help to reduce emissions; it will help to lower the energy bills for those residing in social housing so that they have a reduced risk of living in fuel poverty.

In order to assess how the social housing sector can contribute to stopping global warming, the SEA modelled emissions from a number of scenarios. These range from ‘Business as Usual’ which assumes improvements to the energy efficiency and carbon emissions from social housing based on the extrapolation of existing trends to ‘Further Ambition which reflects a potential emissions reduction level required to achieve net zero. The analysis shows that whilst emissions will continue to fall up until 2050, ‘Business as Usual’ will not achieve enough to meet the net zero target. The ‘Further Ambition’ scenario requires a retrofit programme for existing stock to bring them up to at least EPC Band C, much higher standards for space heating in new builds and a deep transition to low-carbon heating.

Representatives of the social housing sector, BEIS, the Committee on Climate Change and SEA members participated in a roundtable hosted by SEA President Lord Best in the House of Lords in July. The modeling carried out by the SEA was shared and the scope for social housing to lead the way in decarbonising the residential sector was discussed. Participants welcomed the analysis by the SEA and provided real insight into the challenges faced by the sector, but it also demonstrated the support and desire from the sector to provide good quality housing to its customers and to contribute to stopping global warming.

Social housing providers have a real interest in the quality of the properties they build and rent. Unlike most private builders who build, sell for profit and move onto the next development, social housing providers are private, non-profit making organisations that provide low-cost “social housing” for people in need of a home. Any budget surplus is used to maintain existing housing and to help finance new homes and it cannot be used for personal benefit of directors or shareholders. As such, social housing providers have a long-term interest in the properties they own and in the communities in which they are based, something hat was reflected by the roundtable discussion. Participants expressed concerns about climate change and a willingness to take on the challenge, however, they described the unique obstacles faced by the sector; the impact of the Grenfell tower tragedy is still being felt and there are also limitations imposed by the rent cap. It is evident from the SEA roundtable that there is no lack of support for the low-carbon agenda. What is lacking, however, is direction. There is real opportunity for social housing to play an important role in reaching net-zero, but to take advantage of that opportunity, stable and consistent policy and funding support is required.

The SEA will shortly be publishing its final report, Social Housing’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming, which will reflect discussion and input from the roundtable.