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London Borough of Lambeth and London Southbank University: Retrofit Skills

Research was conducted by London Southbank University (LSBU) in partnership with Lambeth Council to understand the local retrofit supply chain and workforce in the two main retrofit channels: Public-Procured and Private-Purchased. This involved a gap analysis and evaluation of the roles and skills needed across both channels. The recommendations and outputs include a list of the roles and skills needed to 2030 and 2050, a stakeholder map of employers and supply chain, and what the council and other stakeholders should do to address gaps and barriers and optimise local benefits from the delivery of net zero retrofits.

What was your challenge?

We have recently hypothesised the retrofit market is clearly divided into two distinct segments.

The first, the Public-Procured segment, consists of local authorities and housing associations. Here, the channels to move goods and services from drawing board to completion are well formed, albeit the sector is still in pilot stage.

The second, the Private-Purchased segment, comprises Private Rental Sector (PRS) and Owner Occupiers (often referred to as ‘able to pay’ although that has proven to be a misnomer). In this segment, the channel is not formed; there is no channel owner, the market is fragmented and difficult for consumers to navigate. This segment is still rooted in tactical energy efficiency which has low consumer interest, despite attempts to bring the market into maturity and provide consumer protection via the Trustmark scheme. It is almost impossible to find retrofit tradespeople operating in this segment.

Our research methodology sought stakeholders from across both segments, including a number of trades people who deliver retrofit ‘on the ground’. Despite our best efforts, we found it was really difficult to ‘pin any of the trades people down’ to join our interview panel or attend focus groups. We simply could not find them, or they did not  respond. Where we received a refusal, they cited disinterest or irrelevance – retrofit is not a revenue stream on the radar of the average ‘tradesperson’ operating in a small SME or sole trader. This blockage confirmed our earlier hypothesis, that this segment of the market is not self-forming. Consumers need a new approach to drive demand pull and engage in retrofit, and tradespeople need some external force to drive supply push, and convert them to the business opportunity that retrofit offers. Doing more of what we are doing is not the answer. Overall, it was really valuable insight.

What was your solution?

We took a twofold approach. First, we diverted more research effort to the housing association sector who were keen to engage and eager to collaborate. Secondly, we moved up a level and sought out sector consolidators, such as rental associations, landlord organisations and trade vectors such as Checkatrade. These trade bodies were able to give insights into how the market is moving and each stakeholder sets readiness for retrofit.

For example, we were able to gain insights into how trades people join the sector, train (or not train) and move up the skills ladder and grow their businesses. This gives us valuable data as to how we might develop strategies to break into that cycle. As well as a good source of information, these relationships have potential to develop into affinity partnerships moving forward, providing a conduit to develop interventions, engage with large numbers of members, and deliver targeted messaging.

What are your top three lessons learned?

Lesson 1: The sector responds to signals

Local authorities are positioned to set higher standards for retrofit (than currently exist) and demonstrate longevity and commitment to Borough-wide retrofit ambitions. Yet retrofit doesn’t feature strongly in the Borough plans, and it does not have the profile of New Build. We believe correcting this imbalance and setting audacious, aspirational goals for large scale retrofitting of homes across the Borough, underpinned with policy standards, could be as powerful as the declaration of a Climate Emergency.

Lesson 2: Bottlenecks exist at an organisational level

Our research identified that gaps exist not just on-the-ground at programme delivery level (as is widely known) but also within the management tiers of the Council and housing associations. We found that housing associations are in a state of organisational transition and need help with goal setting and forward planning. They are eager to ‘Do retrofit once - and do it right!’ and avoid a large leap to reach net zero post-2030, but they are firefighting against competing demands – a post COVID-19 environment, new fire and safety regulations, fuel poverty and rent pressures affecting fragile lives, plus their ‘business as usual’ maintenance and stock management. They are aware that when it comes to retrofit they are only in pilot phase – there are bigger challenges to come – but are already struggling with retrofit planning and management resource shortfalls.

Lesson 3: The housing association sector is keen to collaborate

We found housing associations really eager to share knowledge and collaborate with each other to capacity build and accelerate innovation. They expressed a strong desire for the council to facilitate this, creating a forum where they can get assistance with forward planning, project prioritisation and creating their roadmaps to reach net zero. They want help with procurement and project delivery, and also with their own internal organisation, for example capacity building and upskilling (CPD) at both management / strategic level and at ground / delivery level. These problems are unique to our times and the challenges we face, but universal among housing associations. Collaboration is key. In the race to net zero, the over-arching sentiment from HAs was ‘when it comes to retrofit, we can’t be in competition’.

What have the outcomes of the project been so far?

The outcome of the project has been to calibrate and supplement LSBU’s Centre for Efficient Renewable Energy in Buildings Framework (Gillich et al., 2018) which enables the Council and other stakeholders to prioritise and consider best routes to delivering the vision and mission for the Borough’s retrofit ambitions.

We are also in the process of developing a suite of stakeholder skills and training maps which will help Lambeth Council and LSBU identify strengths and weaknesses in the current offering, so we can work collaboratively with NGOs, other further education / higher education establishments and independent retrofit providers to create clear, effective green jobs pathways.

How will these outcomes be sustained?

This research was conducted as part of an ongoing strategic partnership the London Borough of Lambeth and LSBU. It builds on a body of research conducted by LSBU around Retrofit Market Transformation and convening the sector to investigate responses to the Climate Emergency at a systems level. It is anticipated that LSBU will continue to support the Council, through retrofit and domestic heat research, ongoing knowledge sharing and development of collaborative programmes with other partners such as the Greater London Authority, the Local Government Association, UK Green Building Council, The ADE (Association for Descentralised Energy), Design Council and many others who share the same vision and mission to transform housing stock and achieve net zero.

What is the anticipated longer term impact on progress towards net zero?

We are operating in a political landscape where market forces are largely seen as the answer to retrofit, without sufficient policy drivers or consistent funding to create that transformation. Despite huge efforts, the market has not self-formed – and in fact has reputational damage from failed subsidy schemes, confusion on heating options and poor perceptions of heating replacements such as heat pumps. By shining a light on channel strategy across the two market segments (Public-Procured and Private-Purchased) and identifying blockages within those channels, this research provides a vital addition in understanding the many obstacles to achieving net zero within the domestic dwellings arena. For example, we have identified that skills are an issue – but the blockage is broader than just at on-the-ground delivery level.

At a strategic level, providing councils with an understanding of the multiple obstacles will allow them to set the vision and collaborate with other stakeholders to find routes to delivering fast, effective retrofit solutions. In this regard, the role of LAs moving forward is going to be mission critical and this research has helped set out that agenda. At a more tactical level, we have identified several projects the councils can support, for example a collaborative forum for housing associations (at Borough level or GLA-wide) or a sector- wide initiative to unblock the bottleneck at Retrofit Coordinator / Management level.

Alongside the already recognised skills development and green jobs pathways, these could be transformative within the Public-Procured market segments.

How has this project evolved your approach to net zero?

This project has cemented some key relationships with critical stakeholders, such as rental associations, landlord associations and trade / contractor vectors on the Private-Purchased segment of the market, putting us in a much stronger position as we seek to collaborate with other sector leads to resolve the issues of a fragmented and unformed market.

It has also firmly crystalised our thinking around the bottlenecks at a managerial level within organisations undertaking large programmes in the Public-Procured segment of the market. Again, whilst we have not specifically resolved these issues via the project, we are now equipped with greater clarity about the need to shape and influence the sector and together find ways to capacity build and innovate in order to address these issues.

The project formed a key step in building relationships with the network of actors that Lambeth will involve in the net zero transition including housing associations and training providers.

Who will benefit from your project?

Within LSBU, the outcomes of this project have shown the value of strengthening connections with LSBU’s Business School and Innovation teams, to move the market transformation beyond engineering and into organisational strategy, behavioural economics and consumer communications. Our product development team have a clearer view of the retrofit courses we need to develop, such as apprenticeships and NVQs, and CPD. We’ve actively sought to build relationships with other training partners who are already offering retrofit courses within the sector to ensure we build on their expertise and support their business development – as well as meeting the need within our own Borough and beyond.

Within the community, and the Borough in which LSBU resides, we see ourselves playing a key part in helping Lambeth deliver healthy homes and cleaner air, as we transition to clean heat and thermally efficient houses. Collectively, across LSBU we are seeing increasing value in Retrofit Market Transformation as a key part of the LSBU proposition.

Describe how your partnership developed over the course of the project?

Fortunately, we started with a warm working relationship as our two leads had been in dialogue about net zero ambitions prior to project start. When our key contact at the council left at an early stage, it felt quite exposing. Luckily both LSBU and Council teams expanded at this point, providing an opportunity to formalise processes and review objectives. We navigated some tricky issue around data access, finding research subjects and impossible timelines. By the time we got to workshop stage, our colleagues at Lambeth proved to be fabulous friends and allies, even facilitating breakout groups and sharing project insights.

How will the partnership be sustained in the medium and longer term?

We propose both parties set up regular check-ins to share strategic oversight as Lambeth form their Retrofit Strategy, and to knowledge share as LSBU’s body of research expands. Lambeth will remain our ‘touch stone’ for sense checking on-the-ground truths and we envisage a two-way dialogue with both formal and informal channels. Further opportunities for collaboration are emerging through our Retrofit Market Transformation work and our Heat Pump Market Transformation work and we are in the process of developing programmes with other partners such as GLA, LGA, UKGBC, The ADE, Design Council and many others who share the same vision and mission to transform housing stock and achieve net zero.