Close to home: 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

How the planning system can help address climate change

The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan Update is due to be published this month (December 2020), after being postponed from April due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The plan will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan, reflecting the new targets set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, with the overall aim of reducing Scotland’s emissions of all greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2045. 

In the face of the climate emergency, the target is both admirable and ambitious.  Achieving it will require input from all sectors of the economy and society – from energy, transport, infrastructure to skills, training and innovation. 

A recent series of webinars held by Partners in Planning looked at the ways in which town planning could help play its part by embedding nature-based solutions and green infrastructure planning into the planning process.

In this blog we look at three innovative projects that were highlighted.  They illustrate some of the varied ways in which planning can contribute towards the Scottish Government’s net zero targets and address the wider climate emergency.

Building with Nature: green infrastructure benchmark

Encouraging developers to incorporate green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into new developments is a key challenge, particularly if there is a perception that it may be more time consuming and/or costly to do so.

Building with Nature is a set of wellbeing standards built around the ‘3 Ws’ – water, wildlife and wellbeing.  The standards go beyond statutory requirements, bringing together evidence, guidance and good practice to provide something akin to a ‘how to’ guide for creating places that benefit both people and nature.  The standards are free to access and use, and there is also a paid-for accreditation scheme, with three levels of achievement – design, good, and excellent.

As well as reducing carbon emissions, the standards aim to help support biodiversity, promote flood resilience and support wellbeing through the provision of green space that is both inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of age or disability.

The standards are entirely voluntary but many local authorities are now beginning to either refer developers to Building with Nature or incorporate them as requirements in their own plans.

Plans themselves can also become accredited.  Indeed, West Dunbartonshire Council’s Local Development Plan 2, published in August 2020, is the first Building with Nature accredited policy document, achieving the ‘excellent’ rating.

Building with Nature have also recently launched a new national award scheme, with the first winners being Forth Valley Royal Hospital and Larbert Woods.

Green-blue roofs – Meadowbank, Edinburgh

One way that developers can incorporate nature-based solutions into their developments is through the use of green-blue roofs. Green-blue roofs can provide a range of benefits for both people and nature – including surface water management, urban cooling, as well as providing habitats for wildlife and opportunities for people to access nature in the urban environment.  

At present, there is no mandatory policy for green roof infrastructure in Scotland, thus while developers may be aware of the benefits that they have, many do not incorporate them into their plans due concerns about their impact on scheme costs and viability.

These concerns have been addressed in a study of the viability of incorporating green-blue roofs into a mixed-used development at the former Meadowbank Stadium site in Edinburgh, conducted by Collective Architecture on behalf of NatureScot (previously called Scottish Natural Heritage). 

The study highlights the varied range of green-blue roof options available to developers – all with different costs, levels of maintenance, building requirements etc.  Some are suitable for public access whereas others are not.  Blue-green roofs are a combination of both green roofs and blue roofs – where rainwater is retained rather than drained (as with a typical green roof) and released in a controlled manner.

Overall, green-blue roofs were found to be a viable option for the Meadowbank development, freeing up space that might otherwise be used for ground-based SUDS (sustainable drainage systems), and offering a range of potential wellbeing and community benefits.  Blue-green roofs did cause a small uplift in roofing costs. However, as a proportion of the overall construction costs, these were minimal, coming in at around £350 per dwelling.

Retrofitting green infrastructure – Queensland Gardens, Cardonald, Glasgow

If our towns and cities are to become truly carbon neutral, then there will also be a need to retrofit green infrastructure into existing developments.  One such example of retrofitting is Queensland Court and Gardens – a partnership between Southside Housing Association and Glasgow City Council to retrofit green infrastructure designs into two multi-storey tower blocks and the surrounding land in Cardonald, Glasgow. 

The project is part of the wider Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention (GISI) programme, which as well as contributing to the ultimate goal of achieving a net zero carbon society, seeks to demonstrate how green infrastructure can be used to address some of the key issues faced in urban areas – from declining economic growth, social inequalities, pollution, flooding, noise, multiple deprivation, health problems and limited biodiversity. 

One of the key issues facing the outdoor space at Queensland Gardens is excess surface water, which renders much of the space unusable.  As such, the project has also received funding from 10,000 Raingardens for Scotland.  It plans to turn the rainwater run-off from the tower blocks into a feature that is incorporated into the gardens.  It also plans to expand the current parking facilities, create a shared community green space, and enhance the currently very limited play space for children and young people.

Both the Queensland Gardens and the Meadowbank site developments will be assessed against the Building with Nature standards.

Green infrastructure as part of the green recovery

The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of having local green spaces that are both easily accessible and inclusive of all ages and disabilities.  It highlighted the importance of nature to the health of society and the world more broadly, along with the urgent need to address climate change.

It also demonstrated that it is possible to create and implement innovative solutions to global crises on a tight timescale, when both the need and will exist.  There are strong calls now for a ‘green recovery’, and it is expected that the imminent Climate Change Plan Update will feature this concept heavily.  Indeed Scotland has already made a number of commitments for a green recovery as part of their 2020/21 Programme for Government, and the findings of the recent Green Recovery Inquiry reinforce its importance.

As the above examples show, embedding green infrastructure and nature-based solutions into the planning system is one way to help achieve Scotland’s goal of becoming net zero by 2045.  By doing so, we can create places and spaces that benefit not only ourselves, but also society and the planet.


Read some of our other blogs related to the environment:

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

Energiesprong: how a Dutch solution could improve Britain’s energy inefficient housing

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. A 2015 study by the Association for the Conservation of Energy found that the UK has among the highest rates of fuel poverty and one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe. In terms of energy efficiency, the UK housing’s walls came 7th out of the 11 countries analysed, while its roofs were ranked 8th, its floors 10th and its windows 11th.

Badly heated housing has significant impacts on health. In 2011, an analysis by Friends of the Earth highlighted the links between cold housing and poor mental and physical health:

“The main health conditions associated with cold housing are circulatory diseases, respiratory problems and mental ill-health. Other conditions influenced or exacerbated by cold housing include the common flu and cold, as well as arthritis and rheumatisms.”

However, people living in energy inefficient homes are often those least able to afford the necessary retrofits, such as insulation, new boilers and double glazing.

The rise and fall of the Green Deal

In 2013, the coalition government launched the Green Deal, a retrofitting programme that aimed to provide an affordable solution for low-income households struggling to keep their homes warm. However, it soon became clear that the Green Deal was too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer, and too hard for householders to understand. After three years of disappointing take-up, the scheme was scrapped in 2015.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, agencies supporting fuel-poor households have been trying to fill the gap. The Trussell Trust, for example, has been opening “fuel banks” in towns and cities across the UK, providing vouchers for paying gas and electricity bills.  Important as they are, these initiatives cannot take the place of housing improvements.

An energy leap forward

The demise of the Green Deal left a gap in the UK’s retrofitting market. However, a recent initiative that shares some of the features of the Green Deal has shown early promise as a possible substitute.

The Energiesprong (“energy leap”) model has its origins in the Netherlands. Energiesprong is a network of organisations committed to urban and regional development. It brokered a deal between housing associations and builders to refurbish houses to net zero energy levels. This means the homes do not consume more energy for heating, hot water and electricity than they produce. Householders commit themselves not to use any more energy than an agreed amount. If they do, additional charges apply, but these are likely to be minimal thanks to the improvements in insulation.

So far, the Dutch scheme has proved successful; the first 800 retrofitted homes have performed better than expected, producing more energy than they consume. The tenants are very satisfied with the improvements and Dutch housing associations have committed to upgrade 111,000 homes under a wider roll-out.

Energiesprong in Britain

The Energiesprong concept is now being applied in the UK, where property developers are working with local authorities and social housing providers on prototypes.

Housing associations will finance the up-front costs of the work, including external wall insulation, roofing and renewables. These will be repaid by the energy cost savings resulting from the upgrade. Unlike the Green Deal, however, the Energiesprong concept is more straightforward and easier for consumers to understand, and refurbishments can be carried out within 10 days. In the UK, between 10 and 30 homes have been undergoing improvements in pilot projects during 2016, with a target of 5000 retrofitted homes by 2018.

The concept also has something to offer owner-occupiers; in addition to improving a property’s energy efficiency, Energiesprong also delivers a better-looking exterior. As Energiesprong UK director Arno Schmickler explained to Architects’ Journal:

“We are trying to position a high-quality, desirable product, to make your neighbours jealous – that really works.”

An off-the shelf retrofit?

The Energiesprong process in the UK must overcome significant challenges before it can achieve the levels of success seen in the Netherlands. Although it has secured European Commission funding, Energiesprong UK could achieve a much greater impact with government support. In addition, changes to planning guidance will be required to enable retrofitting without the need for explicit planning permission. The UK retrofitting sector must also make technical and cultural adaptations if it is to emulate the impact of their Dutch counterparts.

But if Energiesprong takes off in the UK, Arno Schmickler foresees the day when retrofitting could become as straightforward as choosing a new sofa:

“We want to position this where you could walk into, dare I say it, Ikea, and buy your Energiesprong solution while you’re kitting out your home with new furniture. ‘That’s how easy it should become.”



Read our other blog posts on energy efficiency in homes:

Housing matters: our recent publications cover issues from homelessness to housing and health

tiny houses 4

By Heather Cameron

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) annual conference and exhibition, the largest housing-focused event in Europe, takes place this week. Over the next three days the conference will examine and explore the political and policy environment, the economic outlook and the latest thinking across the sector.

A variety of topics will be addressed, including housing supply, housing policy, social housing, welfare reform, regeneration and homelessness. These topic areas feature extensively on our database, some of which we have also written about. So this is a good opportunity to highlight some of our recent publications in this area.

What we’ve published

Our most recent ‘In focus’ briefing looks at housing retrofitting, something that has been highlighted as essential for improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock. It considers the benefits of renovating domestic properties to improve energy efficiency and environmental performance and describes the features and technologies of retrofit, such as heat pumps, combined heat and power and various types of insulation. The environmental, economic and social benefits as well as the barriers are summarised. Recent developments concerning retrofit schemes introduced by the UK government and the devolved administrations are also described, and there are examples of good practice from the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Last month we published Delivering solutions to tackle homelessness (Ideas in practice), which looks at the scale of homelessness across the UK and its causes, and provides innovative examples of projects and initiatives that are tackling the problem.

The examples of innovative approaches highlighted include:

We have also written a series of blogs on the topic of homelessness. These include a look at the Christmas Dinner campaign for the homeless run by Scotland’s not-for-profit sandwich shop, Social Bite, while also highlighting the recent increase in homelessness in Scotland and the UK, and the shocking number of homeless children at Christmas.

Another blog post looks at the problem of the hidden homeless and its financial and human costs.

Digital inclusion and the social housing sector is the topic of another ‘In focus’ briefing. This looks at the benefits of digital inclusion, the barriers to digital inclusion for social housing tenants, and how these might be overcome. It refers to a 2012 report which found that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the internet live in social housing, suggesting digital exclusion is a particular problem in the sector. It includes examples of good practice and highlights the importance of digital inclusion in the context of welfare reform.

We also recently blogged on this topic, highlighting one of the examples of best practice featured in our briefing: a case study of a collaboration between Reading Room – a digital consultancy which joined the Idox Group in 2015 – and Catalyst, one of the leading housing associations in London and the South East. This collaboration highlights the potential of technology for improving communications between social housing providers and their tenants, and for encouraging more people to reap the benefits of going online.

Another topic we have looked at is the integration between housing and health. Housing conditions can affect the physical and mental health of people, and can contribute to many preventable diseases and injuries. The ageing population is also putting pressure on the NHS, and growing numbers of older people have to stay in hospital longer because their homes are unsuitable for their recovery. Our briefing notes that housing associations, local authorities and healthcare providers have been working on solutions to tackle these challenges, and provides case studies from London, Tyneside and Bristol as examples of greater collaboration between housing and health services.

The challenges of an ageing population for the housing sector has also been highlighted in our briefing on meeting the housing needs of older people. It indicates that there will be a need for: adaptations to existing housing stock; mainstream rented accommodation built to accommodate wheelchair users; and newly built specialist accommodation. Examples of good practice – including case studies of extra care housing from Calderdale Council, and adapting homes for older and disabled residents in Knowsley, Merseyside – are highlighted.

This is just a flavour of what we’ve recently covered on housing-related topics, and we will inevitably produce more as the sector responds to a time of change and uncertainty.


Some of our briefings are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

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

Knowledge Exchange Briefing: Housing Retrofits

hands showing home sign

by James Carson

The team at The Knowledge Exchange have recently started producing briefing papers on subjects of particular interest to our members (and potential members). One of our latest briefings focuses on the challenge of retrofitting houses in the UK to make them energy efficient and more environmentally friendly.

The briefing covers three main areas: Retrofit features and technologies; The benefits of, and barriers to, retrofit; Government retrofit measures. Continue reading