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Housing and Homelessness: Decarbonising the Built Environment

decarbonisation

Curia’s Levelling Up Commission recently conducted an inquiry on housing and homelessness. The inquiry was split into three panels, with part one focusing exclusively on the UK’s planned transition to green energy. The panel was hosted by the commission’s chair, former Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Social Care Paula Sheriff, and she was joined by two industry leaders: Richard Miller, an Associate Director at Connected Places Catapult, and James Dyson, a Senior Researcher at E3G. Both speakers provided insight into the challenges that surround the interplay between housing and net zero while also offering up some potential solutions.

Decarbonising housing

Back in 2019, the Committee on Climate Change found that housing in the United Kingdom wasn’t fit for the future as the retrofitting of homes was falling short of set standards. Given the intense focus on increasing the use and supply of green energy, fueled by the UK’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, there is a need for housing in the country to become more future-proof. According to Richard Miller, the net zero target is part of the jigsaw puzzle. He said:

“How net zero connects with quality of life issues, health and wellbeing, the economy and ultimately place is something that needs to be considered. The first thing to understand is that there is no route to net zero without decarbonising the built environment.

“The reason for that is the built environment accounts for 40% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. On the operational energy side, about three-quarters of the carbon emissions from the built environment come directly from the use of fossil fuels in buildings for space and water heating.

“The challenge, therefore, becomes one of dealing with heating. We know how to fix this problem and we know we can create very energy-efficient homes. We need to dramatically cut operational emissions from existing buildings by using external wall insulation, replacing the roofs, doors and windows and using low-carbon heating.”

According to Miller, the knowledge and know-how is there. The issue, however, is that the infrastructure and planning around that knowledge isn’t up to scratch. He elaborated:

“We’re not doing any of it fast enough, cost-effective enough or reliably enough. We need solutions, policy drivers and better innovation. Although we know how to physically do it, we need better solutions to bring down costs, improve performance and critically, make measures easier to install, use and maintain.

“Governments – national, regional and local, must all demand change. They must use whatever levers they have in their powers to drive change to set clear targets and mean them. The policy needs to be outcomes-orientated and focused on the target.

“Whatever the policy, you have to set a direction and stick to it, we can’t keep changing our mind. This is something that different governments, at all levels, have historically been very bad at.”

Barriers to better quality homes

James Dyson’s primary focus is on the decarbonisation of heat and buildings. Through his extensive research at E3G, Dyson has compiled a list of five barriers to heat decarbonisation and high-quality homes in the UK. They are as follows:

  1. Inconsistent public funding – “Retrofit is extremely expensive so public funding for this is absolutely crucial. The government’s flagship campaign, the energy company obligation, has collapsed over the past decade meanwhile more local schemes have suffered from stop-start approaches.”
  2. Unequal capacity between local governments – “Local governments could be crucial coordinators for place-based retrofit. However, recent delivery of locally-led retrofit schemes shows varying levels of capacity to undertake retrofit. Making the most of local governments will need time and investment for quality and large-scale delivery.”
  3. Failures in local and spatial planning – Heat pump restrictions in relation to noise, distance, boundaries and size are out of date and need relaxing. As things stand, the restrictions lead to delays in heat pump installations. Some local governments have also tried to max out the sustainability of new developments, but the planning system blocks this. Conservation zones restrict and frustrate retrofit efforts and finally, the planning system is under-resourced.
  4. Disconnect in energy planning – “There is no coordination between district network operators and local authorities. Local area energy planning is not funded in England meaning only wealthy local governments can do a high level of energy planning.”
  5. Skills and supply chain – The private sector will invest in retrofit capacity if they see a stable and profitable revenue stream. Local governments have a role in ensuring training is available, and practising retrofit procurement will make them more aware of their local supply chain.”

Although the challenges at hand may seem like huge hurdles to overcome, Dyson is quietly optimistic that the task isn’t as daunting as it may appear. Talking about possible solutions to these challenges, he said:

“There are several ways in which we can overcome these barriers. Firstly, we should be looking to reform public schemes so they can return to a higher volume of installation while protecting consumers. Another quick fix would be to remove arbitrary heat pump planning restrictions and balance conservation with energy efficiency in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

“Longer term, we should be looking at allowing local governments to introduce stricter building requirements where feasible and work towards better coordination between themselves and district network operators.

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the government need to be able to provide stable and profitable retrofit work through public funding to strengthen the supply chain.”

Summary

  • The Levelling Up Commission have held a three-part inquiry session on Housing and homelessness in the UK. Panel one focused on the country’s transition to green energy and the challenges that come with it.
  • Richard Miller, Associate Director at Connected Places Catapult, discussed the need for a comprehensive approach to decarbonising the built environment, including the importance of retrofitting existing buildings and the role of local governments in driving change.
  • James Dyson, Senior Researcher at E3G, highlighted five key barriers to heat decarbonisation and high-quality homes in the UK, including inconsistent public funding, unequal capacity between local governments, and failures in local and spatial planning.
  • The sessions emphasised the importance of addressing these barriers in order to achieve the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050 and highlighted the need for a coordinated effort from the government, local governments, and the private sector.

Final thought

The issue of decarbonising the built environment and improving the quality of homes in the UK is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires a coordinated effort from all stakeholders. While there are many barriers to overcome, the benefits of a comprehensive approach to decarbonisation and quality housing cannot be overstated. Not only can decarbonisation help the UK meet its net zero emissions target by 2050, but it can also improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for millions of people.

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