Working in the NHF Public Affairs team, I frequently get to engage with the government and meet MPs, but one of my favourite parts of my role is the opportunity to visit our housing association members and see the positive work they are doing to support residents and provide safe and secure places to live. Most recently, I got to visit a retrofit and decarbonisation project run by Abri, one of the largest housing providers in the South of England. The project aimed to improve the energy performance of 31 homes in Bruton, making them easier to keep warm and cheaper to heat.
As part of the programme, each home was provided with a bespoke and tailored solution. Residents are benefitting from a range of measures including updating cavity wall insulation, insulation added to the loft and eaves, and solar PV panels. They were also given a full package of aftercare to help them make the most of their new sustainability measures, including a post-installation briefing, handy materials and access to a dedicated retrofit expert at Abri to answer their questions.
As a result of the work, every home in the programme saw its Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating increase by two to three bands, from EPC D to EPC A/B, the highest ratings for energy efficiency. The work was completed using funding from the first wave of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) and forms part of a wider retrofit programme, with a total of 118 homes retrofitted throughout 2022.
I spoke to a couple of residents who have benefitted from the retrofit work. They shared both the positives and negatives about their experience of the process. The key challenge for them was how involved the process was, including a number of pre-inspections, post-inspections and the disruption of the work itself. Despite this, they expressed how pleased they are with the results, which have gone way beyond expectations, and said the benefits far outweigh any inconvenience faced while having the work done.
This came up in conversations with Abri staff about lessons learned and the wider challenges they faced while carrying out the work. Indeed, the importance of supporting customers throughout the process was a key lesson for them. They have a solid aftercare package in place for residents but recognised that preparing residents as much as possible for the disruption is just as important. One possible solution might involve a customer forum to provide the opportunity for residents to ask questions on, and hear about, the experiences of others who have been through the process, the benefits and results of the work, and how the new technology works in practice.
Another challenge Abri raised is the need for these kinds of projects to work regionally. Housing associations will be a key part of this. Owning a variety of homes across the country, they will be able to coordinate voices, pool together resources and support the upskilling necessary to drive the decarbonisation agenda and meet the UK’s net zero target. Security of long-term funding is also key to this.
The Greener Futures Partnership is a good example of where regional working is already effective. The partnership is a unique collaboration between five housing providers, of which Abri is a founding member, representing 600,000 customers in 300,000 homes. It aims to tackle the challenges associated with sustainable social housing by harnessing its collective power. For example, it has developed a joint procurement framework to engage a range of new suppliers across the regions.
A comprehensive national retrofit strategy, similar to the approach taken by the Greener Futures Partnership, that focuses on scaling up locally-led initiatives and delivering joined up action on skills development, would go a long way to meeting the net zero target. It’s something that housing associations are well placed to support. Furthermore, a long-term funding commitment to decarbonising our social homes would unlock supply chains and give housing associations the confidence and certainty needed to make long term plans, and contract for and deliver the large-scale retrofit projects required to meet net zero by 2050.
Ultimately, it is clear that retrofit projects like this one will be crucial for the sector to be able to deliver the huge programme of decarbonisation work necessary over the next decade. However, as was made clear to me during the visit, this will only be possible with long-term funding and investment and the upskilling of the workforce.