Amid all the understandable attention at COP26 on global solutions to global problems, it was sometimes difficult to become aware of more localised matters. One sector, that of social housing, is in need of a particularly large overhaul, and although we tend to think of it in terms of our neighbourhood, our town, our city and our nation, any solutions that can make social housing more sustainable and less damaging in Manchester, for example, can be just as significant in Moscow, Montreal, Melbourne and Mombasa.
As soon as you look into the prospects of upgrading, and thereby making our social housing more eco-friendly, you realise what a monumental task we have in front of us. In the UK alone, there are somewhere in the region of four million domestic properties that are socially rented. A nationwide retrofitting scheme is the answer, most experts would agree, but on a scale of this size that represents an enormous financial commitment, one that would place a huge economic burden on the government and on local authorities.
Newly built properties in Britain are more energy efficient, cheaper to run and are helping us to move towards our much-vaunted Net Zero target. Those homes, bright and shiny as a new penny and as green as Greta Thunberg’s socks, are not the problem, however. The problem, of course, is with the older houses and flats that need a major upgrade. Many of them have heating systems often dating back decades rather than years, along with windows and doors that are as effective at draught-proofing as I am at salsa dancing.
Energy-efficient homes we can all be proud of
However difficult the retrofit schemes might prove to be, however intrusive they will be on the privacy of the occupant and however costly to the local authority, in order to reach our Net Zero targets they simply have to be completed. In the long run, there are tangible benefits for everyone involved. Residents will pay less for their energy, landlords will own properties that can last far longer and local and national governments can point to a gradually reducing carbon footprint in the whole sector.
A recent BBC report on a retrofit scheme in Northamptonshire serves as a timely reminder of the extent of such an initiative. It involves around 150 properties, mainly built in the 1920s, and it will cost around £60,000 per home. The upgrade involves solar panels, more modern central heating systems, more effective insulation and improvements in ventilation. In total, the cost is likely to be somewhere around the £7.5 million mark, with the government chipping in £3 million. These things aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely effective.
And while the overall goal of COP26 is to do more for the environment, there are of course many mini agendas included. Delegates from all over the world have had to weigh up a sizable number of serious issues and act upon them as best they could, and that includes the need to make homes and workplaces more energy-efficient. Retrofitting older social housing developments is cheaper than simply bulldozing them and starting again, so the construction industry, already buzzing with activity, can expect to get even busier in the coming years.
Listening to the noises made by various movers and shakers around the world, including many who were at COP26, you get the feeling that if we are to achieve Net Zero, retrofitting homes is likely to play an important role in the whole process.