Over six months in 2021 and 2022, 24 officers and councillors from local authorities across England were invited to explore, unpick and address the challenges of retrofitting domestic properties. The focus was on developing the skills required inside and outside the councils to manage and implement retrofit programmes, including co-ordinating internal and external stakeholders, generating demand from householders, and upskilling suppliers.
Achieving low carbon housing is a vital part of the UK’s climate change targets because around 20 per cent of emissions come from homes. The challenge of reducing carbon emissions sits alongside other priority issues such as fuel poverty: retrofit is seen as a way of significantly improving not only energy performance but also health and wellbeing through warmer homes and lower bills.
Local authorities play a key role in planning, co-ordinating and delivering retrofit for area-based all-tenure programmes. As well as stabilising the global climate, this presents a unique opportunity to ensure that retrofit investment improves citizens’ health, stimulates local economic development, and ensures no-one is left behind.
A new retrofit skills programme run by the LGA has reconfirmed that the retrofit challenge is complex with many factors lying outside local authority control, including regulation, the availability of funding, and the capacity of supply chains.
Over six months, 24 officers and councillors from local authorities across England were invited to explore, unpick and address the challenges of retrofitting domestic properties. The focus was on developing the skills required inside and outside the councils to manage and implement retrofit programmes, including co-ordinating internal and external stakeholders, generating demand from householders, and upskilling suppliers.
A process of action learning was used to help individuals focus and reframe their retrofit and low carbon housing challenges, prototype approaches to tackle them, and share the results with each other. The main outcomes have been:
- uncovering the complex challenges inside and outside local authorities
- re-motivating staff
- facilitating collaboration among teams and organisations to increase impact.
Participants were self-selecting with their passion to address climate, housing quality change or the wider challenges of sustainability, stemming from their working experience or other personal drivers. Most English regions and urban and rural areas were represented at borough, district, county or combined authority levels.
Facilitating retrofit was mainly a part-time role (only one participant was full-time) and was frequently combined with other responsibilities such as skills development, climate, fuel poverty, housing, new build development or economic development. Roles ranged from new junior officers to senior managers and council portfolio holders.
The process – for the individual participants
Facilitators brought leading-edge expertise in sustainable housing and group coaching and facilitation. They described the process as a humbling experience and reflected that the current situation seems unsustainable in the light of the scale of the demand, available resources, and varying commitment of leadership.
- Step one: focus
Retrofitting domestic housing is an extremely complex problem, which involves different tenures, external contractors, householder engagement, national standards and is expensive to do well. As such it was no surprise at the beginning of the learning sets to hear stories from local authority officers that they found it difficult, were under-resourced, felt isolated in their challenge and were unsure how to define success.
All participants had drive and commitment to make it work, despite the many difficulties they faced, but they frequently felt overwhelmed. The learning sets helped officers and councillors to focus on what was most important for them. This ensured that the programme was tailored to their individual needs.
- Step two: reframe
Peer feedback helped participants to appreciate their work and challenges from new perspectives and to reframe it. For example, seeing retrofit as a health, education or business enabler where this was likely to achieve more success locally.
The experiences of others helped share understanding of where key difficulties might lie, or interventions they might make to improve the chance of achieving their goals.
Focusing and reframing can be iterative across retrofit objectives and challenges.
- Step three: act
Creating a psychologically safe space, one that is empathic, authentic and free of judgment, facilitates a culture where participants will act to test their own ideas and offer creative solutions to others. The coaches were able to ensure challenges were offered in a constructive non-shaming way and that advice emerged from experience.
Participants were able to foresee pitfalls in the way they had planned, and to anticipate a range of possible outcomes. It was interesting to observe how some were able to commit to trying a different approach to their work after this.
- The future: collaborate
Those who completed the programme welcomed the opportunity to share their issues and exchange technical information. Participants were encouraged to connect inside and outside the learning sets and this helped them take steps to collaborate, between and among the project partners. They could then be helped to nurture these relationships. The initial cycles are closing with relief from participants, re-motivated, empowered, and feeling they are far from alone in facing their problems.
To continue this, the LGA are supporting the development of a Community of Practice, where local authority officers delivering retrofit can share thoughts and create a culture of working together, reinforced by stories of failure, learning points and success. This can help participants spot patterns and contrasts in the way they and others are addressing the retrofit challenge.
Key challenges found at a macro level
A challenge map generated by the participants highlights the complexity of retrofit faced by local authorities. The retrofit system challenges of participants can be grouped into key areas around procurement, management, skills and priorities. Other challenges included:
- Resources – many officers are working on retrofit part-time and remotely. They feel alone and under-supported to be able to tackle the complexity and scale of the problem. Restricted resources means Local Authorities are not always able to work in partnership with neighbouring or lower-tier Authorities. Leadership styles are needed that create cultures of collaboration and learning. Local climate emergency targets are extremely challenging to achieve with current resources.
- Financial implications – national stop-start financing has eroded trust among householders and contractors. Public and private landlords are threatening to increase rents to cover costs of retrofit. Local contractors, already disincentivised, are also facing shortages of materials and labour. With full order books, they are too busy to retrain and manage additional paperwork. Neighbouring councils are competing for finance and suppliers which drives up costs. Some local authorities have had to return grants because they do not have staff to manage them or contractors to perform the work.
- Long-term planning and unintended grant consequences – funding requirements often mean that some homes are being fitted with new energy systems without first insulating the homes adequately. This can lead to colder rooms and higher bills. Many officers were frustrated that the current funding requirements did not allow the fabric of the building to be properly insulated, particularly on older properties.
While some local authorities, staff and elected members do understand and support decarbonisation, the complex issues about retrofit are not universally understood, despite a huge amount of advice and briefing.
Despite the frustrations and difficulties, there were many good examples of how councils and officers are leading retrofit delivery. These were shared as enablers for other local authorities and officers to understand how they could be shaped to local circumstances:
- Strategic leadership – organisational cultures are required that allow uncertainty and service-based leadership.
- Councils need resources to bid for resources.
- Technical knowledge needs to be shared.
- Local contractors are more accountable to communities and need support to manage risk and quality.
- Collaboration among local and regional councils builds and strengthens local networks. This may be supported by combined authorities or sub-regional partnerships like those coordinated by the Sustainable Housing Action Partnership (SHAP) and the Centre for Sustainable Energy.
- External and internal fora that facilitate open discussion among officers and members, and with citizens, businesses, and trainers.
- Whole house planning allows finance to focus on reducing energy use across the housing stock while councils increase their capacity to implement the plan.
To support greater collaboration and encourage more sharing of enablers, the LGA has launched a Community of Practice for officers delivering retrofit to share knowledge, information and facilitate mutual support. To join, contact Anna Bright at Sustainability West Midlands (Anna.Bright@swm.org.uk).
- South Somerset District Council: Retrofit in Rural Somerset and the Action Learning Sets
- Worcestershire County Council: Potential conflicts between net zero and fuel poverty