Home truths: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Guest post: Stories from lockdown – interviews show how poor housing quality made life even more tough

Mike_shots/Shutterstock

Philip Brown, University of Huddersfield

Life during COVID-19 has not been a uniform experience. There have been distinct differences in how people have contended with lockdown, depending on whether they have access to safe, secure and decent accommodation.

New research from the University of Huddersfield has looked at how people were coping while living with poor housing conditions in the north of England during the first lockdown, between May and July 2020. We spoke to 50 households: 40 in the private rented sector and 10 owner-occupiers, as well as eight housing workers.

The findings are stark and unsettling. The study found that the state of homes were causing increasing distress and were costing more to run and maintain. People in rental properties, in particular, felt increasingly insecure in their tenancies.

Worsening conditions

The majority of the people we spoke to were living in privately rented accommodation. We found that for these households, existing poor housing conditions worsened during lockdown.

Many households expressed a suspicion that landlords were using lockdown as an excuse to indefinitely postpone or delay repair works (repairs were permitted at the time the study was conducted). Others reported that their landlords had refused to arrange repairs. People told us about leaking roofs and guttering, and about how water coming into their housing had caused internal damage, damp and mould.

Woman looking at mould in corner of room
Damp and mould were recurring problems. Burdun Iliya/Shutterstock

These households faced the choice of waiting and trying to cope, or using their own income and savings to fix their homes. As one resident told us:

In the end I had to pay for someone to come out and get rid of the mice myself because I can’t have mice running about the flipping house… when it was leaking on the roof I had to pay to have tiles put in.

Our findings showed that people were not reporting or following up concerns or making complaints, due to a fear of possible revenge evictions or rent increases which they could not afford. Many respondents told us that they were putting paying for housing costs ahead of food and other outgoings.

Making ends meet

We heard accounts of the challenges of living in cold and damp conditions. This was a recurring factor in the lives of those people on low incomes, as well as for people for whom the pandemic had added a new layer of uncertainty.

A lack of control over rising energy costs in the home was an ongoing source of anxiety. A single parent said:

I don’t put my heating on as much as I should do. I make sure my daughter walks around in slippers, dressing gowns. You come into the home, you take your coat off and you put a dressing gown on, so you walk round in a housecoat, basically.

Often, these accounts did not come from people who had existing experience of the welfare system, but from people who were still working full-time in professional occupations.

Elderly woman wrapped in blanket adjusting thermostat
Energy costs cause anxiety. Paul Vasarhelyi/Shutterstock

Spending weeks at a time in poor-quality accommodation had a crushing impact. One woman reported:

I’ve got really bad damp in my house…it’s always bothered me, but it’s bothered me more and more and more because I work from home, and I’m working in the kitchen, and I’m looking at it every day directly and seeing it there. It’s just getting worse. The landlord keeps saying, “There’s nothing I can do”.

Existing problems

The report makes it clear that the issues households were facing did not begin during lockdown. Rather, households were put into lockdown within homes that were already low quality. The stories within the report are not isolated cases – around 1 million homes across the north fail to meet basic decency standards.

Research has shown that those most at risk of experiencing the worst impacts of the pandemic are those people who are already vulnerable: those receiving benefits, living with long-term health conditions, in precarious employment or living in insecure housing or with poor housing conditions. These issues are particularly acute in the north of England.

Immediate action is needed to ensure people retain as much income as possible, their outgoings are minimised and their housing is secure. The housing crisis in the UK is not just about a lack of new homes, but also about the quality of existing homes that many of us will continue to live in for decades.

Philip Brown, Professor of Housing and Communities, University of Huddersfield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more on housing from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

How the COVID-19 homelessness response shows opportunities for future progress

Before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, there were already discussions around how the spread of COVID-19 would impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was an acute awareness not only of the significant levels of homelessness in our towns and cities but that the number of people who needed support was growing at an alarming rate. Strategies for prevention and outreach programmes to help break the cycle of homelessness through a network of support systems for homeless people were helping to a certain extent in some areas, but the problem was (is) chronic and the concern among people who worked in, and had experience of, the sector in relation to the potential impact of COVID-19 was growing.

Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Surprisingly though, in many areas the response to support the UK’s homeless populations was swift, definitive and all encompassing. Partnerships were formed with local hotel chains – the GLA partnership with multiple hotel groups as part of the Pan London Placement scheme is probably the best publicised but individual arrangements have sprung up across the country and people were moved from the street into accommodation which was self-contained and would allow them to effectively isolate if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19.

In March, minister Robert Jennick announced £3.2 million of funding for councils to help them protect local rough sleepers from the pandemic and MHCLG, councils, the voluntary sector and those who work within homelessness outreach specifically have all mobilised to form an effective network of support for many people who had previously been sleeping on the streets.

The response to moving those who were sleeping rough off the streets has been unprecedented, as is the volume of people who have been helped. Many people have been accommodated regardless of their “local connection” or their “recourse to public funds”, something which previously was a significant barrier to many people being housed in temporary accommodation by their local authority.

A new wave of homelessness?

However despite the significant progress made, there are growing concerns about a “second wave of homelessness”- people who become homeless off the back of the stagnation and collapse of some areas of the economy, particularly those in low paid and precarious work i.e. hospitality and retail sector. Additionally, there are signs that some especially vulnerable groups have not engaged with the process or that some people have became homeless after the initial offer of support was rolled out. These include people from migrant backgrounds, and people with acute and severe mental ill health.

Things can’t go back to the way they were

One thing is clear, according to professionals, things can’t be allowed to return to the way they were. In some instances this is for practical reasons, and in other instances because we have been able to see what it is possible to achieve when people co-operate and there is a collective will to progress.

The use of communal shelters, one of the main ways of delivering emergency accommodation for many years may have to stop, or at least be re-organised to avoid multiple people sharing facilities like bathrooms or sleeping in rooms with multiple beds. A move towards more “pod style” contained living may be a way forward, but it will take a shift in design to accommodate people safely in the future.

The response has shown that it is vital to develop links between housing and health, and that the integration of services with public health to create wrap-around care (which is something which is currently being co-ordinated in response to the pandemic) should be maintained going forward.

The pandemic response has also shown that multiple organisations can work well effectively together and that the red tape, perceived layers of bureaucracy and challenges of different ways of working can be overcome if there is collective understanding and will. These barriers can be overcome to create really effective and much needed services and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Concerns have been raised around future funding, and in particular the risks of funding being stopped abruptly or the supply being removed at short notice, for example if hotels re-open and councils then struggle to identify appropriate accommodation for people to transition into. The sector has stressed that councils should be planning for this transition phase to prevent people returning to the streets and dis-engaging with services.

Opportunities to learn lessons

At an online event hosted by the Centre for London, which brought together professionals from within the sector in London to reflect on the response to COVID-19, somewhat surprisingly, the atmosphere was one of optimism that this could be the start of a new way of working. There is hope that a “can do” and “get things done attitude” which had been catalysed by the need for urgency because of the spread of COVID-19 can be harnessed and that this mindset should be embedded into practice going forward.

One of the main questions that appears to be raised is, if we can do it now, with such urgency, why couldn’t we do it before, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the collective will and the government support doesn’t disappear post COVID-19? This is something local authorities, homeless outreach groups and other partners will have to grapple with over the coming weeks and months.

The response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. It has shown that with understanding, flexibility and effective partnership working to deliver coordinated services (as well as appropriate supply and funding) that tackling homelessness, or at least offering more to our homeless communities in terms of effective long term support, can be achieved.

There is a collective sense within the sector that the steps forward taken as a result of this pandemic should not be allowed to regress in the future, but should be strengthened and built upon to provide more effective support going forward for homeless communities across the UK.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on housing and homelessness:

Digital Housing Week: How coronavirus is affecting housing

Throughout this week, Inside Housing magazine has been providing a series of webinars offering debate, learning and innovative thinking on how housing providers are responding to present-day challenges and preparing for future demands.

One of the webinars focused on the ways in which Covid-19 has accelerated the move to agile working for housing associations (HAs) and council staff, and how housing providers can tackle the  mental health and wellbeing issues experienced by staff and residents.

Responding to the new normal

Anita Khan, from Settle Housing Association in Hertfordshire explained how her HA responded to lockdown by mobilising its continuity plan. Settle’s first responsibility is to engage with and support its customers, and once the plan was enacted, agile behaviour took root.

Anita described how automated contacts with HA customers enabled it to identify which people were in isolation or shielding. At the same time, methods of enforcement had to change, as the UK government banned evictions. Anita explained that once the HA stopped sending messages warning customers of enforcement of the rules on rent payments, the residents started to engage more positively with it.

Working practices at Settle also changed substantially, with a move away from a face-to-face culture towards remote working. Anita described the process of change HA staff experienced, from relief at not having to make long commutes, followed by fatigue from too many video conferences, and more recently recalibrating to a situation that works.

Agile working in the age of coronavirus

Tony Morrison, an agile working consultant, described the measures taken by Newham Council  to modernise the way the local authority worked. He explained that in 2019, Newham got a new leadership team, and deployed a plan to make the first investment in IT for eight years. The aim was to make sure everyone was mobile by default, and to pivot a local authority with 14.5 million pieces of paper towards a paperless organisation. The plan was already under way when the lockdown was imposed.

Immediately, the council had to adapt to the new situation. Around three thousand members of staff didn’t have effective ways of working from home, and so the council identified who most needed assistance, and delivered laptops and mobile devices to these 500 individuals.

At same time, the council deployed Office 365 and migrated Skype for Business, and enabled staff to communicate with customers using Zoom.

Newham has now rolled out a further 2000 devices to staff, and it’s clear that the lockdown experience has demonstrated the possibilities of remote working.

The council is already looking to the post-pandemic period when it might not require so much expensive office space. Tony explained that now would not be the right time to consider disposal of offices because so many other organisations are in the same position. Instead, Newham is looking at alternative uses for its property estate, including cohabiting with other organisations, pop-up spaces and conversion to affordable housing.

Housing on the frontline of a mental health crisis

There’s now little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on mental health. With the loss of lives and livelihoods, and the growing demands for support from already overburdened health services, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be on an unprecedented scale.

During the Inside Housing webinar, consultant psychiatrist Raj Persaud talked about the unique role housing can play in tackling mental health issues among staff and residents.

He noted that housing staff may be among the first to identify signs of mental illness among residents, because fewer people have been attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.

He suggested that housing staff in this position should raise such issues with community mental health teams. He also highlighted the importance of contacting NHS services by letter. Because letters are legal documents, health professionals are more likely to pay attention to issues raised in this way.

Raj highlighted a key issue housing staff can focus on when dealing with people who have mental health problems:

“Too often, the aim has been to concentrate on the causes of mental illness, but that misses out on the coping skills people have used in the past. The right skills can make a person super resilient, and so it’s always useful to engage in conversation about coping skills people have used for previous life events.”

All of the speakers in the webinar stressed the importance of the human factor in tackling the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Raj Persaud noted that, in the absence of the water cooler, the pub or the staff room, physical locations have to be recreated virtually. Doing this may feel clunky at first, but even if things don’t feel right, housing staff and others should persist until they find a method that suits them, and enables people to feel they are less isolated.

Final thoughts

One thing is certain: post-Covid will be very different from pre-Covid. But this webinar demonstrated that housing providers are embracing the fluidity of this situation. In an age of thinking differently, those who consider alternative solutions to the problems of the present may be better equipped for the challenges of the future.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

aerial view architecture autumn cars

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The UK population is ageing. A 2019 report from AgeUK using data from the ONS highlighted that there are nearly 12 million (11,989,322) people aged 65 and above in the UK of which: 5.4 million people are aged 75+, 1.6 million are aged 85+, over 500,000 people are 90+ (579,776) and 14,430 are centenarians. By 2030, one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over, 6.8% will be aged 75+ and 3.2% will be aged 85+.

Allowing people to live well in old age in their own homes is something which housebuilders and planners are giving increasing thought to, both from a wellbeing perspective for residents, and a financial perspective for services, including the NHS and social care. The creation of “lifetime neighbourhoods” – spaces where people can live well from birth to retirement – brings together a number of elements: providing easy access to services; creating physical spaces which are suitable for people with disabilities and mobility issues to navigate; and allowing people to maintain those social and community ties which are associated with wellbeing, which can sometimes be lost with forced moves to residential care or a prolonged stay in hospital.

Homes for life

Building homes that are suitable for an ageing population is an important first step in creating lifetime neighbourhoods. However, planners and developers are starting to realise that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to housing for older people. As with the general population, older people are not a homogenous group, and while some may need the support provided by extra care or sheltered housing projects, or may need single-storey open plan living to accommodate mobility aids or telecare packages, others simply want to live in a space which enables them to live comfortably in a community which suits their needs in terms of location and availability of services.

Designing and building a range of different housing types, which includes single-storey homes, extra care and sheltered housing, as well as stock which is suitable for people looking to downsize, is a key part of the development of effective lifetime neighbourhoods. This can free up larger family homes for people with children to move into and ensure that people are not kept unnecessarily in hospital because housing cannot be adapted to meet changing needs. A 2014 Age UK report showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing is a barrier to downsizing, highlighting that retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Now groups like the Housing Made for Everyone coalition (HoME) are calling on the government to make all new homes accessible and adaptable as standard to help meet growing need in the future.

Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres, local shops and good transport links are also a key aspect to planning effective lifetime neighbourhoods, as is ensuring accessibility of services such as GP appointments. Effective infrastructure planning can help enable the whole community, not just older people to feel connected to their local area, both physically and socially which can really help to support the idea of lifetime neighbourhoods and enable people to live well regardless of age.

Preventing loneliness and isolation in older age

Preventing loneliness and isolation in old age by creating spaces which facilitate engagement and encourage people to have positive social interactions is important to ensure that everyone within the community feels respected, involved and appreciated. However, the challenges are different depending on the nature of the community in question. In rural areas, social isolation can be compounded by a lack of appropriate transport infrastructure or the removal of key services at a local level in favour of “hubs” which are often located in towns and cities; in urban areas, loneliness can be exacerbated by the chaotic, hostile or intimidating environment that living in a densely populated area can have, a flip side to the benefits of density.

Ambition for ageing is a programme which aims to discover what works in reducing social isolation by taking an asset based approach to creating age friendly communities. Asset based approaches seek to identify the strengths and the abilities of people and communities, rather than their deficits. The asset based approach to creating age friendly neighbourhoods also seeks to use the experiences and  attributes that all members of the community have to help make the community better. To create effective age friendly neighbourhoods older people need to have opportunities to participate and feel that they are making a positive contribution.

A space for all ages

While much of the research and literature on lifetime neighbourhoods focuses on older people, it is also important to ensure that spaces meet the needs of all groups in the community, including children and young people and people with disabilities. Creating places which balance the needs of all groups within the community is an important consideration for planners.

The physical environment can be as important as the built environment and infrastructure development when it comes to developing lifetime neighbourhoods. Spaces which make use of natural and green infrastructure with lots of green and open public spaces have been shown to help improve mental health and wellbeing, as well as encouraging people of all ages to be more active. A number of design factors such as good paving, effective street lighting and easy access to seating and public toilets make neighbourhoods accessible to older people and people with impairments. Poor design can ‘disable’ people in their immediate environment and act as a barrier to participation in local activities.

adult affection baby child

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Final thoughts

For lifetime neighbourhoods to be successful, it is necessary that there is access to a range of appropriate housing options. In addition, the planning of public, open and green spaces, availability of transport links and local community infrastructure like libraries, police stations and local shops are all vitally important to ensure communities can thrive.

It is clear that while there is demand for more suitable housing for people in older age, the location and type of housing being built must also meet the needs and expectations of older residents, including good connections to local infrastructure, and safe accommodation. Projects which bring a range of ages together can be effective in strengthening community cohesion, can help challenge stereotypes and can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Collectively these different elements feed into the creation of lifetime neighbourhoods which can support people to live well into retirement and beyond.


Further reading: more articles from our blog

Follow us on Twitter to see what topics are interesting our research team.

Housing wealth matters

Houses-on-coins-by-Images-Money

With the widening gap between the richest and poorest across different measures of inequality, there is growing awareness that income is not the only factor that impacts living standards. This has led to increasing interest in the distribution of wealth. While wealth can take various forms, the most visible way households accrue and store substantial amounts of wealth is through property ownership.

Property wealth in Scotland has increased ten-fold over the last 50 years – driven primarily by rising house prices, but also by the increasing number of properties and transfer of public housing into the private sector. However, this wealth is not distributed equally. In its recent examination of the scale and distribution of housing wealth in Scotland over time, the Resolution Foundation highlighted the marked rise in housing wealth inequality over the last decade, which is now twice as high as income inequality.

Why?

The new report shows that the growing inequality in housing wealth is in large part due to the fact that while very few families in Scotland currently have no form of income, over one in three Scottish households hold no property wealth at all and those in the top income decile own around 30% of the country’s property wealth.

Additional property ownership has also increased in recent years, adding to the level of inequality. The biggest wealth gaps were found to be in Scotland’s largest cities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow – where low rates of home ownership are coupled with ownership of multiple properties, concentrating housing wealth in fewer households’ hands.

In addition, the last decade has seen many people struggle to get a foot on the housing ladder and today’s young people hold less housing wealth than their predecessors. Location was also found to have an impact as house prices can differ greatly by local authority, although these variations have reduced in recent years.

As a result, levels of housing wealth inequality are now nearing the same levels as those in England and Wales, although rates of homeownership remain higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

With more people now having some form of income than ever before, it is perhaps reasonable to ask why housing wealth is so important.

The Foundation’s report highlights that owning property has value over and above general wealth effects in that it can also provide a secure home; a source of income; and greater financial security in later life. Indeed, the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) and Policy Scotland’s evidence review, which complemented the Foundation’s analysis, also highlights why housing wealth matters, citing many economic, health and social impacts.

Why housing wealth matters

While it has been previously argued that housing wealth inequalities are of little significance in terms of macroeconomic impact and can therefore be disregarded, there is now a growing body of evidence suggesting that in fact these inequalities do matter. The evidence review notes that:

  • housing assets are of growing importance encouraging household spending and were implicated in the global financial crisis;
  • access to home ownership is increasingly reliant on parental property wealth with negative implications for social mobility;
  • housing wealth is cumulative: e.g. buy-to-let has increased dramatically in Scotland over the last 20 years, often facilitated by the re-mortgaging of existing property by owners;
  • rising house price and wealth effects reduces productivity growth; and
  • different rates of house price change create inequalities across UK regions.

This is not only the case in Scotland and across the UK; across Europe housing wealth inequality has been shown to exacerbate socio-economic differences by segregating households based on income levels.

In relation to health and wellbeing, housing wealth can be a double-edged sword. A rise in house prices can lead to increased physical health of owners but decreased physical and mental health of renters.

Of course, historically, housing wealth has been seen to contribute to reduced wealth inequalities due to increased home ownership, however, there is now also an emerging concern that high house prices and rents may impair labour supply and productivity.

HWI

Main elements of wealth inequality processes within the housing system (CaCHE, 2019)

It is clear that income is not the only important factor in inequalities. This is illustrated by recent figures on child poverty and in-work poverty, which show that despite recent record levels of employment, two thirds of children living in poverty come from working households and more than half the people living in relative poverty in 2017/18 (53%) lived in households where at least one adult was in paid employment.

The Resolution Foundation notes that while the scale and distribution of housing wealth has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, wealth taxation has not.

Indeed, it has been recently argued that policy is widening the housing wealth divide and that the local supply of housing needs to be realigned with local housing demand if this is to be rectified.

Way forward

The research suggests that a number of actions could be taken to address the growing housing wealth inequalities in Scotland:

  • Firstly, support for sustainable home ownership, especially for those on lower incomes or in the younger age bracket is highlighted as one obvious response, although it notes that policies such as Help to Buy risk stimulating demand to the point that house prices are driven up. As a result, it is suggested that policy action to lessen the demand for holding additional properties would be a more sensible strategy.
  • Second, it is argued that there is a strong case for substantial reform in the area of the property taxation to address the current mismatch between the value of housing wealth and taxation.
  • Third, it is suggested that the Scottish Government could give consideration as to how the benefits of holding housing wealth can be provided to those who are unlikely to ever be able to support home ownership, with more efficient taxing of housing wealth. In addition, the government could also build on their recent reforms which have provided tenants with greater security of tenure and more predictable rent increases, and look to provide more support to low-income families via further supplements to benefits.

With the current system of council tax described as “highly regressive”, “inequitable” and “inefficient”, the research calls for much needed reform.

Both reports acknowledge that radical change is a political challenge but while the Resolution Foundation’s report states the case for action is clear, the evidence review advises caution, suggesting that a more equal housing system is a long-term aspiration rather than something practical and realisable in the short to medium term.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in some of our previous posts on housing topics.

Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with our latest blog posts and find out what topics are catching the eyes of our Research Officers.