The housing sector may have been diverted onto other issues at present, but a Sustainable Homes event ‘Lean & Green’, found that, despite recent announcements, landlords were improving energy efficiency by focusing on the positives, realising efficiencies that also happened to be green – rather than the other way around. Simon Brandon reports.
Sometimes it feels as though the housing sector is labouring under the apocryphal Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’
Budget cuts, welfare reform, the extension of right-to-buy, the coming end of the energy company obligation (ECO) and the Green Deal… These are interesting times indeed.
But the social housing sector is continuing to push forward, and understanding better how business efficiencies can be green wins. For example, 15 housing providers are investigating the link between energy efficient homes and a decline in rental arrears – with which 1 in 10 housing associations are lumbered with £2million or more. And at a time when fewer ‘deep’ retrofit measures were happening a striking statistic cited was that the employment multiplier for every home that was retrofitted with solid wall insulation 17 days’ worth of work.
“It’s a bleak-looking landscape,” acknowledged Dr Alan Whitehead MP, shadow energy minister, to a packed room in Portcullis House, Westminster last week. “It’s going to be a very lean time for greening homes and moving energy-efficiency forward.”
Dr Whitehead (pictured) was chairing a panel, convened by Sustainable Homes, to discuss possible routes forward for the sector in the face of so much uncertainty, and to address the question: how can housing providers and industry ensure sustainability and energy efficiency don’t fall by the wayside in the face of these current and future challenges?
Panellist Nigel Banks, group sustainability director at Keepmoat, began in a pessimistic vein. “This could set us back five or 10 years and trap more people in fuel poverty,” he said. “The 1 per cent cut to [social] rents [in England] could be the straw that breaks a lot of camels’ backs.”
According to Robin Lawler, chief executive of Manchester landlord Northwards Housing and another of the day’s panellists, that cut alone will mean a loss of £24 million in rental income for his 13,000-home arm’s-length management organisation (ALMO) over the next four years.
But despite the gloomy backdrop, Mr Lawler said his organisation was determined not to lose sight of the importance of green issues. “Our response should be about much more efficient asset management, and linking that to climate change,” said Mr Lawler. “Asset management strategies should include investment in building fabric as well as renewable energy.” Investing now to save money in the future might be tough, he added, but would generate revenue savings further down the line. “We are jointly procuring energy efficiency services in order to reduce costs. Benchmarking against others also helps understand where we can do better”, Mr Lawler concluded.
There were calls, too, for closer collaboration between landlords, contractors, suppliers and developers – all of which were represented in the audience. “We have to do as much as we can with what we have,” said Mr Banks. “’And we need to pull together – industry and social housing providers – to deliver bigger impacts.”
Panellist Robert Hughes, from Willmott Dixon, began with a plea to government: “We need energy efficiency to be part of the national infrastructure programme.” He added: “There is no other way to think about it. It would make a huge difference if companies and investors see that the government is there – it will have a multiplier effect and companies will see it as a real market.”
Last to speak was Andrew Eagles, managing director of Sustainable Homes. He posed the question: how should we measure the performance of new homes, and are there efficiencies to be found here? He said: ‘We put out papers and reports on new developments on things like thermal bridging but, when you step back from it, the relevance of these technical details get lost. What we need is to state more clearly that getting these things right mean better quality homes that are nicer and healthier to live in’. Mr Eagles suggested an alternative approach to measuring the quality of a new home: for example, have its occupants made fewer hospital visits as a result of their home’s performance?
“We need to get people’s hearts and minds on board so that we’re talking about quality homes, not just green homes,” he added.
But today many new homes, once inhabited, underperform – often significantly – when measured against their own energy-performance specifications. Sustainable Homes is to undertake a third National Energy Study to examine the causes behind this gap, and social landlords have been invited to take part.
“The conjunction of optimism and pessimism has been neatly summed up this afternoon,” was how Dr Whitehead summarised the discussion before catching the train back to his constituency in Southampton. “There is clearly a lot of work to be done.”
Sustainability certainly isn’t going to become less interesting any time soon.