09 Nov 2021

Housing at the heart of climate action

As the saying goes, home is where the heart is but it’s also at the heart of the carbon emissions causing the global climate emergency with our homes being responsible for around 20% of the UK’s total CO2 output. Ahead of COP26 Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru Director, Matt Dicks, guides us through the challenges that the housing sector and government face in meeting the climate emergency head on.

Although it might well be worth diverting the collective genius of nuclear physicists to the global challenge that is climate change, it doesn’t take an Einstein to work out that, given around 20% of our total carbon emissions in the UK come from our homes, decarbonising our housing needs to be at the top of the priority list.

In the last Senedd term – 2016-21 – the Welsh Government invested “£2billion into housing” helping to deliver its commitment of 20,000 new affordable homes.

Full credit to the Government and the sector as we are on course to beat that target but it’s important to note that not all those homes will be at social rent – the target for social housing was around 12,000 out of that 20,000.

Furthermore, despite huge innovation by social landlords during this period around more energy efficient homes, many will still be served by  traditional energy sources such as gas boilers.

So, when you take the Welsh Government’s ambition to build 20,000 low-carbon social homes during this Senedd term it’s clear that there needs to be a sizeable shift in the level of investment and scale of innovation needed.

Not only are there an additional 8,000 social homes to be built compared to the target in the last Senedd, thus requiring more grant, each individual home will cost more to build because of the greener standards introduced by Welsh Government – and at a time when supply chain costs are sky-rocketing.

On top of that we have the challenge posed by our existing housing.  Most homes that we are going to live in for the next 50 to 60 years have already been built, and in many cases are poorly insulated and effectively haemorrhaging CO2.

We need to retrofit to make them more efficient in retaining heat and gradually reduce our reliance on using fossil fuels to warm our homes.

The Future Generations Commissioner estimates that £14.75bn will need to be invested by 2030 in retrofitting all homes in Wales, including £5.5bn for social homes and £4.4bn for owner-occupiers and homes in the private rented sector.

We’ve heard recently about plans from Westminster to up the amount of homeowners who install ground source heat pumps. Whilst that’s all well and good, what we need is a whole-home approach that starts with us thinking about how we make homes air-tight, and more effective at retaining heat – and truly cost effective incentives that allow people to purchase, maintain and utilise this technology.  If you live in Italy, for example, and want to insulate walls and windows and install a heat pump boiler or solar panels, the government will pay you 110% of the cost.

Furthermore, building new low-carbon homes and retrofitting existing homes should be viewed as an opportunity. We must reignite our economy as we emerge from the pandemic and that £14.75bn will help create the high-tech, high-skilled jobs of the future that we need to grow our economic fortunes in Wales - having the potential to create 26,500 new jobs, according to the Commissioner.

A good example of how this can work is North Wales housing association, Catrefi Conwy’s Creating Futures project which includes a factory hub that produces modular Passivhaus homes (carbon neutral) which are then taken to site for assembly and over their lifetime reduce fuel bills considerably. This project has helped more than 300 people into work in the past four years.

But the Welsh Government does get it! It’s pumping a record £250m into grants this year to build social homes. It’s pumped £155m into its Innovative Housing Programme to trial modern methods of construction and £69.5m into the Optimised Retrofit Programme  which is identifying innovative ways to improve the efficient and quality of existing (especially older) homes.

We know that given the scale of the challenges I’ve outlined, costs can’t fall on the shoulders of tenants. But with the financial resources of organisations already stretched we think it’s important the government act soon to outline how investment will be targeted to meet that ambition in practice over the longer term.

Much of that investment will also need to be pumped into skills and training because there’s a realisation gap emerging aorund putting in place what it’ll take to achieve Welsh Government’s ambition in practice. Two tangible things that would help address those two issues would be a partnership with the sector that sets out the long-term plan for funding, and a detailed workforce strategy that sets out the pathways to deliver the right skills into the workforce.

Of course, we understand that there is huge pressure on the Welsh Government’s budget, not least caused by the demand that the NHS will have on it as we address the winter pressures and post-pandemic waiting list backlog. It further underlines the importance of governments at both ends of the M4 being equally as committed as each other in addressing this monumental task before us.

We need to start thinking big, and thinking differently, about how and where we live. And of course, housing doesn’t exist in isolation from other key infrastructure such as transport and hospitals – and that idea of building sustainable places that reduce wider CO2 contributions as we go around our daily lives need to be at the heart of this discussion, but that’s a discussion for another day.