16 Dec 2021

Did 2021 give us the green light for the green agenda?

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the focus on sustainability and climate change would be put on hold because of the pandemic – to be honest, I thought progress would end up being reversed. Thankfully, 2021 has seen a huge shift in policy for greening the UK’s housing stock – with major strategies launched such as the Heat and Buildings Strategy and the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. We put together a handy ‘what you need to know’ on the Heat and Buildings strategy which you can find here.

While there has been a fair bit of progress in the shaping of strategies, with plenty of reconfirmation on what we should be doing, there most certainly hasn’t been enough action and we are still waiting for full clarity on funding commitments and frameworks to help us reach those important targets.

It’s all been a bit piecemeal, what with the Green Homes Grant (GHG) coming to a premature end in March after only being live for six months, after officials rushed its design, put in place an undeliverable timetable, and failed to heed industry warnings. I wrote a bit more about the GHG for Inside Housing, looking at its potential and ways in which government should re-design the scheme for the desired outcomes. Longer-term schemes such as the Energy Company Obligation have also been subject to change, which I discuss in this blog.

The Chancellor gave us a taste of the £3.9bn commitment for the decarbonisation of heat and buildings in his Autumn Budget, by confirming £800m for the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, which can be used by housing associations to carry out energy efficiency upgrades in homes. £950m for the Home Upgrade Grant scheme was also announced as part of the package, and from April 2022 homeowners will be offered grants of £5,000 to install more efficient heating systems, through a new £450m three-year boiler upgrade scheme. At the same time, the government opted against introducing a national ban on natural gas boilers, preferring at present to gradually encourage customers to move to lower carbon alternatives by around 2035.

All of this is welcome news, but the Budget did leave me questioning the scope and scale of heat strategy funding. It was light on detail on the true nature of what we need to deliver on net zero strategies, policies and commitments, and there was nothing to suggest any fresh thinking or investment in replacing the GHG. I’d expected a little more, especially when we consider that COP26 was to follow the budget announcements just days later.

New rules for new homes

Earlier in the year, former housing-secretary Robert Jenrick announced new energy efficiency standards for new homes to reduce energy consumption and lower bills, which we discuss here. As we speak, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHULC) has responded to the Future Building Standard consultation, announcing new regulations that carbon emissions in new homes must be 30% lower than current standards. These new rules are set to raise standards and are an “important step towards a cleaner greener built environment”, paving the way for the Future Homes and Buildings Standard in 2025 - which ultimately will mean all future homes are net zero ready and will not need retrofitting.

For detailed analysis on what is needed to achieve zero carbon in UK housing stock across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, be sure to check out our annual UK Housing Review.

The energy crisis and fuel poverty

You will have seen the news on the worsening energy crisis, with average domestic energy bills having already soared by over £230 per customer compared to last winter. Increases to the gas bill price cap in April could see the average combined domestic dual fuel bill increase by a further £550 per year. The government has committed long term central funding to help fuel poor households improve their homes, with funding available for off gas households up to 2025.

We’ve paid a lot of attention to the fuel poverty crisis this year, partnering with National Energy Action at the start of the pandemic to produce a helpful guide to support people experiencing fuel poverty and to enable them to take steps towards more affordable energy use. We took part in Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, which calls for the journey to decarbonisation of housing stock to be to be ‘fair and affordable’.

The social housing sector currently out-performs other tenures in terms of Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings, but the harsh reality is that too many homes remain cold, unhealthy, poorly insulated, and unaffordable to heat.

In this blog, I explain how we cannot eliminate our carbon emissions without upgrading the least efficient homes, which are disproportionately occupied by those on the lowest incomes.  

Learning from across the sector

This year we’ve learnt that the sector is already being creative in exploring ways to pilot retrofit programmes, access forms of green finance and work together with tenants to co-create energy efficiency plans and promote sustainable behavioural change. This year, CIH partnered with Orbit Group to understand how housing organisations can better put tenants at the centre of the conversation about how we reach net zero carbon.

The report looks at the understanding, attitudes, and priorities of social rented households to reaching net zero carbon, as well as examining more widely what matters in relation to the environment around them. In addition to the research with tenants, the report delves into the challenges of the net zero carbon delivery, touching upon topics including fuel poverty and affordability. You can find the report here.

We’ve been busier than ever this year at CIH with virtual events and just recently we’ve returned to some in-person events too. Almost all our events have featured the green agenda, but in particular the Housing Management Summit, Future of Housing London and South East, and the Northern Housing Festival which all featured exceptional key speakers and practical knowledge sharing on decarbonisation.

A particular highlight this year would be our Climate Change Week, which has been described as “an excellent round up of all things climate change” by member of CIH Rachel Honey-Jones, from Newydd Housing Association.

I have no doubt that in 2022 we will continue to accelerate our learning and share with one another new ways of thinking and innovative ways of working, to build on the incredible progress that we’ve already made in reaching net zero milestones.

We’ll be accelerating our own work at CIH on net zero in 2022 – but we can’t do that without our members. Please get in touch with your thoughts and plans for decarbonisation in 2022 and how we could work together.