LGA Housing Retrofit and Decarbonisation virtual event blog

The event highlighted the importance of building council capabilities to deliver housing retrofit and decarbonisation programmes, fostering partnerships, and supporting stakeholders to advance the wider agenda.

Chaired by Councillor Linda Taylor Leader of Cornwall Council & Vice Chair of the Local Infrastructure and Net Zero Board, LGA.

The virtual event, part of the LGA’s Sustainability Programme, emphasised the urgent need for extensive retrofitting of the UK’s housing stock to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Whole house retrofit, involving improvements to building fabric, heating systems, and renewable energy installations, is key. Councils, aiming to enhance energy efficiency in their housing stock, are also promoting retrofit skills within communities.

The event highlighted the importance of building council capabilities to deliver housing retrofit and decarbonisation programmes, fostering partnerships, and supporting stakeholders to advance the wider agenda. 

Featured speakers included Sharon Hanbury from Manchester City Council, Dale Hoyland from Oxfordshire County Council, and Phillip Morris from the South West Net Zero Hub.

Manchester City Council's Zero Carbon Housing Journey

Sharon Hanbury, Zero Carbon Programme Manager at Manchester City Council, shared insights into the city's proactive approach to housing retrofit. Manchester declared a Climate Emergency in July 2019, setting an ambitious target to achieve zero carbon by 2038. The city's Climate Change Action Plan spans various sectors, including housing, with a commitment to retrofit at least one-third of all social rented properties to EPC B by 2032.

The scale of the challenge is significant, given that about a quarter of the city’s carbon emissions are generated by housing. Manchester City Council aims to retrofit 84,000 properties by reducing housing emissions by 50 per cent, with an estimated total cost of £2.1 billion. The housing stock, largely comprising pre-war and mid-century properties, presents unique challenges, but the council is committed to meeting its targets.

Manchester City Council's engagement with the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) Wave 2.1 exemplifies its commitment. The programme, including 1603 properties across various projects, integrates retrofit works with Decent Homes and Building/Fire Safety works, totalling £49.7 million in capital costs. The council is navigating through the complexities of mobilisation, procurement, and delivery, facing unexpected issues such as cladding and structural safety concerns.

The council is also actively working on sustainability strategies for properties managed under private finance initiative contracts, involving collaboration with different organisations. Heat Networks, a prevalent feature in the housing landscape, are addressed through the government's Heat Network Energy Efficiency Scheme.

Manchester City Council collaborates closely with housing providers where a feasibility study is underway. Private sector housing initiatives, including securing £10 million from the Home Upgrade Grant (HUG2), demonstrate the council's commitment to a comprehensive approach, involving collaborations with Manchester Care & Repair and Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Despite the progress, the council faces challenges, including financial constraints, resource limitations, and the complexity of managing multiple contracts. Resident buy-in and navigating the external funding environment are ongoing concerns.

In conclusion, Manchester City Council has made fantastic progress in its journey towards zero-carbon housing. The continuous efforts, partnerships, and lessons learned underscore the magnitude of the challenge. As the council navigates the intricate web of retrofitting initiatives, it emphasises the importance of strong foundations, strategic procurement, robust programme management, and continuous engagement with stakeholders.

The event served as a valuable platform to share experiences, exchange insights, and inspire other councils to embark on similar journeys. Manchester's commitment to continuous learning, reflection, and harnessing relationships and partnerships will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping a sustainable and greener future for the city.

Paving the Way for Sustainable Living in Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire County Council is spearheading efforts to address the pressing issues of climate change and the rising cost of living. Dale Hoyland is the Retrofit Team Leader within the Climate Action Service, and presented a compelling vision on providing an enabling environment for retrofit delivery at scale as a crucial step towards creating a sustainable and eco-friendly future for the county.

Currently facing a climate and ecological emergency, Oxfordshire is grappling with a cost-of-living crisis, with fuel poverty on the rise. The situation is particularly challenging in the rural areas, where two-thirds of those in fuel poverty reside. Despite Oxford City's affluence, there are hot spots of poverty, making the need for intervention critical.

The Pathways to Zero Carbon Oxfordshire document sets the ambitious target for 16,000 properties to be retrofitted to an EPC 'B' standard, or above, by 2030. This mandate underscores the gravity of the situation and the need for immediate action.

The presentation highlighted The Better Housing, Better Health initiative—a one-stop advice service offering free and impartial guidance on accessing funding, switching energy suppliers, fuel debt advice, and support from various organisations. 

The Home Upgrade Grant 2, an award of £6.4 million, focuses on upgrading 310 properties across four district councils (excluding Oxford City) until March 2025. The grant covers a range of measures, including insulation, Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP), and Solar PV.

Eligibility for the Home Upgrade Grant 2 is broad, encompassing owner-occupiers and private tenants (with landlords contributing 33 per cent). The targeted homes are those not heated via mains gas, with an EPC 'D' or worse, and residents receiving means-tested benefits or having a gross income below £39,000. This income eligibility is significantly above most other areas (£31,000) as Oxfordshire has successfully secured additional allowances to account for the county's high housing costs. 

The Heat Pump Ready programme, funded by the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero, shows that deployment of ASHPs at a scale needed to meet net zero targets can be achieved in areas where there is grid capacity. However, for such projects to be a success in an expanded region, such as across the county, there is a need to address electricity transmission constraints, and undertake necessary upgrades to sub-station cables and the low-voltage network. Oxfordshire County Council is currently building a team to undertake a number of Local Area Energy Plans (LAEPs). Dale was enthusiastic that these would indicate more areas where electrification of heat (as well as transport, etc) could be promoted and rolled out, as well as to identify areas of constraint where a business case for grid reinforcement would be required.

The council are actively working towards overcoming the barriers to scaling retrofit delivery. Financial challenges (Dale is looking to soon launch a green financing mechanism to engage a wider audience on retrofitting of their homes), consumer engagement, installer capacity, capability, and skills, along with material supply issues, are all acknowledged hurdles that need to be addressed.

Looking ahead, the council is optimistic about the future projects it is launching to overcome retrofit barriers. Encouraging residents to urgently leaving fossil fuels behind is a priority, and achieving net-zero carbon is the overarching aim. The council envisions energy-efficient homes, sustainable transport, responsible food practices, and eco-friendly businesses, all powered by renewable sources. The emphasis on community-level support underscores the belief that small changes, when collectively embraced, can lead to a significant and positive difference.

For more information on the retrofit initiatives in Oxfordshire, visit www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/retrofit and, specifically for their HUG2 scheme: www.welcomethewarmth.org.uk

A regional approach to retrofit - South West Net Zero Hub

In response to the government's net-zero strategy, the South West Net Zero Hub, , has emerged as a catalyst for change in the region. This hub operates with a clear mission: to provide impartial advice, technical support, and funding to public and not-for-profit organisations. The goal is to develop projects that not only accelerate emission reductions but also facilitate the transition to a more sustainable future.

Five regional hubs were strategically established to attract commercial investment and assist local public sector bodies in developing investment models that expedite progress toward net zero. The South West Net Zero Hub, primarily funded by the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero, has been actively supporting public and community sectors for several years.

One of the key priorities of the South West Net Zero Hub is to support retrofit programmes in the region. These initiatives include programme delivery, market development and finance, supply chain and skills development, and awareness building. With the aim of reducing carbon emissions and lowering energy bills, the south west region faces the challenge of training over 10,000 solid wall insulation installers and 17,500 heat pump engineers by 2028 and 2027, respectively to meet the net zero commitments that have been made.

To that end, the hub has been tasked by the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero to create a Net Zero Buildings Retrofit Skills plan, aiming to assess the current state of the retrofit supply chain and develop local capacity to achieve net zero targets.

The South West Net Zero Hub has successfully delivered against set targets, winning the Unlock Net Zero Awards Green Homes Upgrade of the Year project in 2023. However, the demand constraint in the industry has resulted in inflated prices, with many contractors leaving and those remaining overwhelmed with work.

The Green Heritage Homes project funded through the Local Energy Advice Demonstrator programme focuses on advising homeowners of listed buildings on energy efficiency. The programme aims to empower homeowners by providing advice at the earliest stage, collaborating with Conservation Officers and Retrofit Coordinators to propose effective measures that preserve historic significance.

The hub implements various funding schemes, and explores ways to remove market barriers, such as the Able-to-pay (ATP) Loan Fund, to accelerate the uptake of low carbon retrofit improvements. If implemented, this fund will support the growth of the low and zero-carbon contractor base within local authorities and demonstrates the viability of private sector-funded loan funds.

While the quality of low carbon retrofit has improved in some areas, challenges persist in the retrofit ecosystem. The South West Net Zero Hub emphasises the need for a long-term strategic approach, clear roles and responsibilities, and adequate client-side resources for successful project outcomes. The hub encourages knowledge sharing to bring clarity to the diverse retrofit landscape across the country.

In conclusion, the South West Net Zero Hub, stands as an example of regional collaboration and innovation. Through retrofit initiatives and strategic planning, the hub is actively contributing to the South West's journey toward a sustainable and net-zero future.

Numerous questions arose during the virtual event and were answered by the panel, Sharon Hanbury, Dale Hoyland and Phillip Morris.

A selection of questions, along with their corresponding answers, is provided below. 

Q: There's a lot of negative press about air source heat pumps. How are you overcoming this? Are you experiencing push-back from residents?

A: Oxfordshire responded that they are about to embark on a comms campaign with short-videos, FAQs and myth-busting about ASHPs which we hope will help, but on the Clean Heat Streets project, having local champions and open-homes has hugely helped in overcoming concerns from others.

Q: The match funding requirement is very high for SHDF. Are you confident that the money you are putting in is VFM compared to other possible investments you could make with it to reduce carbon at minimum cost?

A: Colleagues from Manchester confirmed that it is high, but we need to do quite a bit of work to improve properties sufficiently and meet the funding requirements. The grant certainly does have limitations, not least the amount and need for co-funding. Our measures are determined by the retrofit assessment medium term plan, and we are choosy about what we then do. 

Q: Is embodied carbon considered in the 16,000 retrofit target in Oxfordshire, e.g. materials in existing buildings to be removed, works, and new materials?

A: The short answer is 'yes' but as you might imagine, it is a little more complicated than this. We have brought in external expertise to assist with monitoring and determining when a retrofit is best for the resident & planet (but of course, where removing, for example a boiler that is burning methane and replacing with an ASHP, even if the boiler is relatively new, the calculations immediately stack up - plus, when undertaking such a retrofit, great emphasis is put on significant upgrades of the fabric of the property, and we would also try to completely remove gas from the property, including oven/cooker etc which has good indoor air-quality improvements, and if the supplier agrees to cap on the network side of the meter, significant cost savings from the standing charge that no longer needs to be covered).

Q: What grants are available to MCC for retrofit?

A: The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) is the main one from government (DESNZ). this provides a certain amount per property (up to around £12k) depending on the situation. We have to provide at least 50 per cent of the funding and this is a real challenge for us and other housing providers.

Q: There are quite a lot of questions about the EPC scheme, and you may reference to what you're doing at Manchester City Council. One of the observations is that you did not mention B, rating is it because that's far too expensive or that's not part of your priority and also how do you prioritise what buildings are going to get your attention?

A: Our goal is to extend beyond EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) and progress towards achieving Band B and ultimately reaching zero carbon over a specific timeframe. The emphasis on achieving Band C is significant due to funding constraints, as financial support is often provided for improving properties from Band D or lower to Band C. This limitation influences our focus on securing funding and dictates where our efforts are directed.

When it comes to prioritising which properties to address, there are various competing priorities, including asset management stress, compliance with decent homes standards, and ensuring fire safety. Despite these competing demands, it is crucial to prioritise zero carbon initiatives within our long-term strategy for managing our properties. This should be a comprehensive plan that encompasses our existing properties and extends to the entire housing stock, seeking funding that aligns with our sustainability goals.

However, the reality often involves responding to available funding opportunities, leading us to adapt our projects to fit within the available financial support. This approach sometimes results in aligning projects with funding rather than the ideal scenario of securing funding that supports our predetermined sustainability goals.

Q: For Phillip Morris - In terms of external engagement, what strategies have proven most efficient for you? This includes focused digital marketing, in-person community participation, peer-to-peer interactions. Have you encountered sluggish engagement rates when interacting with other housing providers?

A: I found there are common themes of success. Trusted partners is always incredibly powerful. The key is trust, clarity, and a common ground.