We can’t just build back better - housing associations must build back greener

This week the Homes at the Heart campaign is looking at how investment in social housing can help build a greener country, through retrofitting existing homes and building new affordable properties to higher energy efficiency criteria. Paul Massara, chair of Sovereign Housing Association and member of the government’s Fuel Poverty Commission, reflects on the climate challenges ahead for the social housing sector.

Stepping into a new role is always an exciting time: getting to know how an organization works; meeting lots of new people; finding fresh challenges that test you. Doing this during a global pandemic makes the whole ‘new starter’ experience particularly unusual, with the lack of face to face communication and the myriad of operational challenges.

Covid-19 has meant organisations across the globe have had to adapt and change the way they do things. However, while Covid is top of everyone’s mind in the short term, it is the long-term challenge of how the housing sector transitions to net zero carbon emissions, which is of greater concern. The urgent need to shift to greener ways of managing social housing hasn’t changed, pandemic or no pandemic.

As Chair of both Sovereign Housing Association and a member of the government’s Fuel Poverty Committee, I have a somewhat unique perspective on the challenges that we face in upgrading our existing stock to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C by 2035, and becoming net zero in terms of carbon emissions by 2050.

What is clear is that housing associations have a central role to play in decarbonisation, both in retrofitting old homes and in ensuring that new homes are built to be climate fit for the future.  That means providing homes that are insulated for cold and heat and can withstand a more extreme climate, both in terms of shading and flooding. Planning for the future must also mean creating great places to live and Covid has perhaps shown how we value our connection to open space and nature more than we thought in the past.

This transition however is likely to be costly with costs ranging from £15,000 - £20,000 to bring homes to net zero. It was therefore welcomed that the government announced £9bn of new funding for energy efficiency in the Queen’s Speech. What we need next is for this to be translated into actionable programs. The recent announcement of a Green Homes Grants scheme is welcome but social landlords will be competing with private landlords and homeowners for this funding.

I hope that in the Autumn Spending Review and in response to stimulate the economy, that we see major energy efficiency programs both for Home Upgrade Grants but also direct funding to help social housing providers meet the costs of decarbonisation. Energy efficiency is universally recognised as being able to create jobs, reduce bills and reduce carbon and therefore should be central to any Build Back Better strategy. 

The added benefit of providing funding to housing associations, is that they have existing supply chains and governance in place that ensure that the work is directed to those most in need and carried out to a high standard.

Covid will eventually pass but the economic and social impact from it will take time to recover from.  It is important that the country builds back better from this in a way that both makes us more resilient for the future and helps those most in need.