Involving and listening to tenants must be major priorities for social landlords and government when delivering low and net zero carbon projects, says Matthew Warburton, Policy Advisor at the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH).
According to the Energy Saving Trust, 88% of people agree it is essential or important that the UK meets its commitment to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, but many fewer are clear about what needs to be done, or their own role in achieving this ambition. Only a quarter, predominantly in younger age groups, feel they have significant control over their own contribution to the level of carbon emissions, and most are looking to government, central or local, to take responsibility for the action needed.
This is the background against which the Government launched its Heat and Buildings Strategy in October, together with several new pots of money to support investment in insulating homes or decarbonising domestic heating. The Strategy’s assumption is that a zero carbon future is likely to rely on a mixture of low carbon technologies to provide home heating, with air and ground-source heat pumps and heat networks chief among them, and potentially also switching the gas grid from natural gas to hydrogen. But none of these technologies is yet sufficiently mature to roll out on the necessary scale.
Heat pumps are depicted as ugly and expensive, and the Government wants to make them “beautifully designed, smaller and easier to use” and 25 to 50% cheaper by 2025. The potential of heat networks is largely untapped, with a huge responsibility on local authorities to take forward the work of mapping opportunities and brokering solutions. The feasibility of switching the gas grid to hydrogen is a major unknown, with its feasibility unlikely to be fully tested before 2030, although the Government has promised strategic decisions by 2026.
Understandably, therefore, the Government’s immediate focus for investment is a ‘fabric first’ approach that aims to upgrade insulation in readiness for a later switch to green heat. It remains the ambition that homes will achieve EPC Band C or better by 2035 wherever “cost-effective, practical and affordable”, and that social housing and ‘fuel-poor’ homes more generally will meet this target five years earlier.
So far as social housing is concerned, that means work to at least 1.6 million homes over the next eight years. In principle, this ambition could be met by investment in insulation alone, but the parallel ambition to test and scale up new technologies will necessarily impact on a significant proportion of these homes.
For example, the Government wants to see at least 400,000 heat pumps a year being fitted in existing homes by 2028. From April 2022, homeowners will be offered up to £6,000 towards the cost of installing one, but the £950m fund announced is unlikely to support more than 100,000 such grants. The arithmetic suggests that social landlords are expected to take a leading role in growing the market for heat pumps, especially for the next decade. But there is little indication that the Government has considered what tenants might feel about this. So far as homeowners are concerned, their rights are seen as sacrosanct, with the emphasis on incentives not compulsion. In the social sector, the Government’s incentives are directed towards landlords, leaving to them the job of ensuring tenant support or compliance with the switch to green energy.
This is not a negligible issue. While public opinion, as summarised above, generally supports a switch to renewable energy, it is far from clear how far this extends to a switch from a gas boiler to electric heating, particularly if this goes with giving up a gas hob. And what if the cost saving is negligible because gas remains cheaper than electricity?
Also, many council estates have memories of bad experiences with unreliable and uncontrollable district heating schemes that will make tenants think twice about participating in a heat network. Raising awareness about the issues and options and taking seriously the job of involving and listening to tenants must be major priorities for social landlords and government alike if there is to be any chance of making a success of the new strategy.