How can housing play a part in solving the climate crisis?

Catherine Ryder, 11 December 2019

It is only natural that as social housing providers we talk a lot about the housing crisis. We constantly ask how we can build more social homes, regenerate communities and help bring an end to the shocking situation of homelessness that is ruining lives.

Recently more housing associations have also been talking about, and taking action on, the climate crisis.

The UK has a target of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reaching ‘net zero’ by 2050. Housing is by no means the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases in the UK, with ‘residential’ responsible for 15 percent of emissions in 2017. By comparison, transport was at 27 percent and energy at 25 percent.

Nevertheless, if we are to get anywhere near achieving these targets, then housing will play a vital part. This will be a priority for the next government, with tackling carbon emissions the one consistently ambitious social housing policy across the party manifestos.

Housing associations themselves are already asking what they can do to help bring down the country’s carbon footprint. As a sector, guided by our social purpose, responding to top-down targets will not be the main imperative to act. They are also committed to making their homes cheaper to heat and dealing with the other consequences of the crisis, like increased flooding, because this will have a significant impact on the lives of residents.

So how do we play our part in this change? In many ways, making new homes more sustainable is the easiest bit. There is lots of innovation happening here - modern methods of construction, materials used, or how they are insulated or heated. The Future Homes Standard, currently out to consultation, will compel us to meet ambitious new energy efficiency standards from 2025, with interim measures proposed for 2020. This may make homes more expensive to build, but will generate savings further down the line.  

A much harder question is how we reduce emissions from existing homes – often built decades ago, poorly insulated and expensive to heat. The next government is likely to set out plans and targets that will require us to bring down emissions from existing homes over the next few years. The previous government hinted at this in the Social Housing Green Paper, which referred to updating the Decent Homes Standard to include new requirements on energy efficiency.

Retrofitting these homes is not going to be easy, and it is going to be expensive. In most cases, it will probably require a combination of measures, such as new heating systems and insulation. Once the work has been done, these homes will be cheaper to heat and maintain, but the upfront investment required will run into many billions. We will also need to work closely with residents to plan and carry out what may be significant work to their homes.

None of this takes into account the other major priorities housing associations are juggling. Our focus on the climate crisis cannot undermine the sense of urgency with which we deal with the housing crisis, and the need for new social housing and investment in communities does not go away. We also need to continue to remediate buildings to deal with safety issues. To achieve all that we need to over the next two decades or so is going to require the right level of support from the government – though measures in the party manifestos to invest in social housing decarbonisation and retrofit are a very welcome start.

We are only just beginning to understand the scale of the challenge facing us. Taking forward this conversation with the new government and with our members will be a priority for us at the Federation in the New Year. It is a huge task, but one of the most vital facing our generation. And it is a task we can, and will, face together.