Maximising the wider benefits of place-based housing retrofit projects

February 2023 | Rufus Mitchell

Residential buildings are estimated to consume almost a third of the UK’s energy supply and be responsible for 16% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions (source). Since the 1990s the UK government has delivered a variety of large-scale housing retrofit programmes (and the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy supply) as a mechanism for achieving a reduction in residential buildings’ carbon emissions.  

However, many of these retrofit programmes have been criticised for primarily focusing on providing funding and finance and not addressing the wider barriers (such as skills and expertise) associated with delivery, resulting in ineffective and inefficient retrofit programmes. For example, a key criticism of the National Energy Efficiency Scheme (2013) which provided free External Wall Insulation to private homeowners was the quality of the works and lack of quality control measures delivered by Ofgem which left private homeowners with damp, water penetration and mould growth. The effects of such programmes on the retrofit industry have been damaging, with homeowners, landlords and occupiers sceptical of the process and benefits of works.

Alongside these national programmes, Local Authorities and Combined Authorities have delivered local criteria-based and place-based housing retrofit programmes. Generally, these programmes have gained more support from industry as they are often more effective at delivering reductions in energy usage and carbon emissions. The reasons for this vary from programme to programme but can be associated with addressing barriers to delivery other than funding, e.g.; overcoming challenges such as low participation rates by using community networks to communicate the benefits of the programme; and by adopting a fabric-first approach.

In addition to overcoming many delivery challenges associated with national retrofit programmes, a growing evidence base demonstrating the regeneration effects of place-based retrofit projects has led to a push from academics and Local Authorities for the delivery of more publicly funded place-based retrofit projects. To maximise the wider benefits associated with place-based retrofit projects, the same stakeholders have also called for these projects to have regeneration focussed objectives. The Sustainable Traditional Building Alliance identifies these regeneration effects as wider social and economic benefits which include health, heritage, community cohesion, local employment, cleaning and re-greening the environment.

Initial findings from the evaluation of a place-based retrofit project (as a part of a wider programme evaluation) undertaken by genecon add to the growing evidence base which suggests place-based housing retrofit programmes can be directly used as a mechanism for place-based regeneration and local economic growth. For example, utilising the procurement process ensured local businesses and residents delivered the retrofit work creating jobs and apprenticeships locally.

However, perhaps the most interesting initial finding, is that for wider benefits to be maximsied, place-based housing retrofit programmes need to be thought about within a place / neighbourhood strategy context. One of the key successes highlighted was the project’s effect on community cohesion. The programme was delivered in an area of high deprivation, that has for the past decade been characterised by high resident turnover. This has been a major barrier to community development. As the programme has been delivered, residents have chosen to stay in the area, facilitating greater resident engagement with community facilities such as the local primary school which has resulted in a greater sense of place and community spirit.

Whilst the retrofit programme improved the quality of the housing in the area and reduced ongoing energy costs, making it a more desirable area for residents to live, other community, public realm and transport focussed projects were also identified as contributing to this outcome. Therefore, to maximise the wider social and economic benefits associated with retrofit programmes not only do we need to respond to calls to broaden the objectives of place-based housing retrofit projects, but we need to consider them within the context of a neighbourhood strategy.

To support the delivery of place-based housing retrofit programmes, regional and national policy needs to shift away from directly delivering retrofit projects and adopt a more facilitative role. National and regional policy should therefore focus on overcoming key barriers to housing retrofit delivery which include funding, skills gaps, supply chain issues and legislative challenges.

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