The Trillion Dollar Retrofit Challenge

The Trillion Dollar Retrofit Challenge

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By Paul Smith – Cratus Associate and Chief Executive at Elim Housing Group

Back when I was first a councillor, in the 1980s, I remember that we were urged to “Think Globally, Act Locally”. Now we have a massive 29 million homes to retrofit to meet zero carbon targets. The consensus seems to be that the cost will be around £20,000 per home or almost £600bn. For social housing alone the figure is estimated at £100bn. These numbers are eye watering and could punch a massive hole in the pockets of every housing association, council housing department, private landlord and homeowner.

Housing associations are being encouraged by their trade body, their regulator, the government, their boards, and their conscience to cost up and start working on retrofitting their existing homes. In my view this could lead to billions of pounds being spent, at the best, inefficiently and at the worst ineffectively. Money could easily be lost chasing untested technologies and ineffective solutions. My concern is that even with the right approaches, the wrong spending decisions could be made because this is not a crisis which we can tackle one house or flat at a time.

The country needs a programme of retrofit on an area basis. In the same way that the Victorians took on cholera by building sewers or that solid fuel was eradicated from cities by building gas pipelines the answer to climate change can not be solved by individuals or individual landlords acting alone. Yes, if you own a block of flats or sheltered housing who can retrofit a whole building dealing with both the energy systems and the insulation, but where you own a few houses in a street it makes no sense to tackle them alone. How useful is it to insulate your homes if the next-door homes are not, and how efficient is it to pepperpot improvements to millions of homes, in thousands of streets in cities, towns and villages up and down the land.

We need area based renewable energy solutions, as well as insulation programmes. But who can do this? If the pandemic has taught us one thing, and I’m sure it’s taught us many, it’s that a national response coordinated locally is what is most likely to work. This is how the vaccine roll out has worked. Each housing association working in isolation from others and from private owners will undoubtedly create pockets of excellence but will fail to address the issue.

So where can such a coordinated approach come from? I feel that only local government, with the right powers and financial programmes, has the ability to make this work. They can, as in my home City of Bristol, establish local energy networks, and they have experience of area-based renewal programmes (yes, I know they have not all been successful). If we want this to work, we should all be, whether we are landlords, owners, developers or builders lobbying government to give local government the resources to make this happen and offering to work with them to ensure that it is effective. If we do not that £600bn could easily become a trillion or two, or even worse, not happen at all. So, let’s ‘Think Globally, Co-ordinate Locally’.

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