The LGA webinar Building Housing Retrofit Skills was organised as part of the LGA’s green webinar series. This overview provides a summary of each speaker’s presentation.
The event was chaired by Councillor Laura Miller, Cabinet Member for Culture, Communities and Customer Services at Dorset Council, and also member of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board Climate Change Working Group.
She was joined by:
- Michael Veasey, Sector Growth Manager (Essex County Council)
- Richard Bubb, Associate at the Sustainable Housing Action Partnership
- Ian Fitzpatrick, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Planning and Regeneration (Lewes District and Eastbourne Borough Councils)
The scale of the retrofit challenge cannot be understated – there are approximately 27 million domestic dwellings in the UK and the majority of these will need to be retrofitted. Without concerted action on retrofit skills, the UK’s housing stock could be the bump in the road which may derail net zero progress. But, as colossal as the challenge is, the opportunities it entails are equally transformative. The LGA’s Green Jobs report estimates that by 2030, energy efficiency products could create 144,897 jobs, rising to nearly half a million by 2050 – if, collectively, we can get this right.
Michael Veasey – Essex County Council
Down in Essex, the County Council are envisioning what the local economy will look like in a post-pandemic world via its Essex Sector Development Strategy, which identifies five key growth sectors. Green is the golden thread cutting across all these sectors but is especially significant for construction.
Currently, Essex’s construction sector is 25 per cent larger than anywhere else in East Anglia, but with nearly 650,000 homes the county will still need an additional 10,000 jobs to make retrofit dreams become retrofit reality. The potential rewards, though, are quadruple:
- better resident health
- alleviated fuel poverty
- fulfilled climate targets
- projected economic benefits equal to £15 billion.
With this in mind, the county council submitted a successful £700,000 bid to the Community Renewal Fund alongside the Retrofit Academy to kickstart the retrofit sector in Harlow and Tendring. This has involved four workstreams:
- research and housing stock condition survey
- train the Trainer scheme
- professional skills training for ‘off the tools’ retrofit roles such as Retrofit Advisors, Retrofit Coordinators and Retrofit Assessors
- a ‘Fit for Retrofit’ business support programme for social housing providers.
Prior to this programme of work, there had been only one accredited retrofit professional in Essex – and they were working in London! Bottlenecks like this exist everywhere; there is not only a national shortage of skilled retrofitters, but also of professionals able to train these retrofitters up in the first place. Training the trainers is a crucial part of establishing the Essex retrofit pipeline.
Also crucial is challenging stereotypes within a highly imbalanced sector, particularly in terms of gender. In Essex, only 2 per cent of full-time construction employees are female. In its ongoing efforts to address this, the county council is using the power of storytelling to reach primary aged children – it recently produced an inspirational film featuring a female member of staff at Swan Housing Association.
Essex’s progress to date in 2022
- Housing stock condition report is complete.
- Retrofit skills gap report is ongoing, due in August.
- 12 social housing providers have engaged with the council.
- 15 local companies have applied for PAS 2030 certification, eight of which have passed.
- Train the Trainer scheme gaining traction.
Richard Bubb – Sustainable Housing Action Partnership
The Sustainable Housing Action Partnership (SHAP) is a not-for-profit organisation based in the West Midlands, whose members include housing associations, councils, businesses, and third sector organisations. Its vision is one of ‘flourishing communities, warm homes and healthy people’. Richard Bubb presented on SHAP’s Action Learning Set programme.
The Action Learning Set drew together officers and councillors from 24 councils who were invited to explore, unpick and address the challenges of retrofit, as follows.
- Resourcing: many officers are only able to work on retrofit part-time.
- Financial: stop-start programmes lead to price increases and difficulties accessing quality contractors.
- Long-term planning: to ensure that the right retrofit measures are installed in the right order.
A maelstrom of external factors – prices, labour availability, material costs, regulation, supply chains etc – feel beyond the control of council officers. It can be hard to slot the pieces together alone. That’s why, when asked about enablers, participants’ responses included:
- strategic leadership from council higher-ups
- sharing technical knowledge across local and regional authorities, creating both horizontal and vertical networks to collaborate rather than compete, as it’s not just the workforce on the ground who need upskilling; firm, knowledgeable retrofit skill bases must be built within authorities too
- dedicated resources for funding bids
- developing relationships with local contractors to nurture trust and confidence
- creating internal and external groups to link officers, elected members, residents, businesses and training organisations.
Although much of the retrofit discussion is technical, it is human relationships and collaboration that will unblock issues and unlock change.
Richard ended by emphasising the importance of whole-house planning and shared the example of SHAP’s work with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, developing a strategy to scale up better housing from 2023 onwards. The proposed model starts with the retrofit of 300 homes in the first year, with an intention to at least double this number annually. This model offers a firm foundation for establishing scale, capacity and confidence which can then snowball rapidly.
Ian Fitzpatrick – Lewes District and Eastbourne Borough Councils
External factors around retrofit might be out of council control, but spending is not. Billions of pounds are spent annually by authorities on procurement. Ian Fitzpatrick posed the questions: what could be done if we thought differently about this money and where/how we spend it? And how can social housing act as a catalyst for changing the market for the private housing sector?
Eastbourne Borough Council, along with the six other councils in the Sussex region, joined a coalition of organisations including the Universities of Brighton and of Chester, Parity Projects, Absolar, Elementa and more to answer the questions posed by Ian.
To set the scene: in Lewes and Eastbourne alone, there are 8,000 social housing properties. The seven councils across the Sussex region collectively spend £100 million annually via their capital programmes. Up to 2030, £1 billion will be spent repairing and maintaining their 40,000 council-owned homes.
Retrofit can be a minefield to navigate. This joint force of academia and local government is finding different routes through it by analysing housing stock at a granular level. For each of the ten types of property across Sussex, the impact of minimum versus medium versus deep retrofit interventions are mapped out. Different budgets are modelled, as are the carbon savings of each scenario.
The project has highlighted three key metrics: costs to landlords, energy cost for tenants, and whole-life carbon. Balancing these and managing the trade-offs between them can require brutal pragmatism – about what you can do, where and when.
Above all, however, the search is for certainty – and how to ensure it for contractors, education providers and councils. Educators need certainty that there are jobs available to match the training they provide. Contractors need certainty that the work is there. For councils, using housing stock data to lay the groundwork for long-term plans will make for a no-regrets approach in the short-term. Coordinating and procuring retrofit programmes over an extended 3–5-year period – and sub-regionally – would allow for longer-term skills development via training opportunities, job creation, and would also bring down costs.
By putting the building blocks of a skilled, reliable and local supply chain in place with the social housing sector, it is hoped that the private sector will then be drawn in, attracted and reassured by reduced risk and proven results.
An extended question and answer session closed the webinar, covering a wide range of topics. Highlights and summary below.
- With increasing temperatures how can retrofit help with adaptation?
If done correctly, insulation can help prevent properties heating up too much, so will be beneficial in both winter and summer. Ventilation must be part of a whole-house approach that starts with fabric first, before any installation of renewables.
- What can be done if housing associations argue that they are ‘asset rich but cash poor’?
Housing associations will already be spending significant amounts on repair and maintenance costs, so we need to convince them that retrofit and energy efficiency measures should be part of this. Engaging with private housing sector is especially difficult, but councils can use their role as facilitators to begin having those conversations (with supply chains too) and perhaps join forces with housing associations to push demands upwards to government. Even better if these collaborations can be cross-regional.
- How do you engage with homeowners?
There is huge potential in the owner-occupier market. There has been some recent positive press, but also scare press about retrofit. Homeowners are scared about making changes to their properties.
We also need to hope for better offers from the financial sector. For example, NatWest are reportedly looking into offering lower mortgages for more energy efficient properties.
- What datasets are councils using to identify properties to start retrofitting?
Using Community Renewal Fund, Essex commissioned its own datasets – doing so is recommendable, because it provides locally tailored intelligence.
Others have used Parity Projects to produce data, but the issue here is that it does not give you an indication of where to start. Where a social housing provider decides to start might depend on skills availability in the locality.
- Is solar really worth it?
Solar PV (photovoltaic) is a no-regrets choice under almost all circumstances. You can generate and store energy locally and therefore shift the times when electricity is needed. This prevents overload on the grid which can be caused by alternative options like heat pumps. Energy generated by offshore wind can be difficult to get inland – pylons etc. But there can be issues with land availability for big solar farms, so commercial developers are increasingly looking at solar on warehouse roofs etc.
Dynamic tariffs can be an important financial mechanism tied to solar, with greater potential for financial returns if homes are insulated. But the key question is how do we get networks to pay?
- Is there a role for public health in retrofit?
Yes, massively. A joined-up approach can account for complex needs. For instance, fuel poor households will likely have connected health issues, due to switching heating on and off intermittently, allowing for mould and condensation to develop. There’s perhaps a need for councils, housing associations and the health service to have shared budgets or be prepared to share their procurement specifications for housing stock assessments.