De-carbonising Social Homes – Maximising the potential

Decarbonising social homes could involve billions of pounds of investment over the next decade. The investment could have an even greater impact for communities and local economies if we considered energy generation and local ownership models at the same time, argue Derek Walker and Adrian Webb

See this page in: Cymraeg

The scale of the social housing retrofit programme is likely to be significant. Community Housing Cymru is calling for a ten-year £4 billion stimulus package made up of a mix of public and private funding to retrofit social homes by 2030.

Welsh Government is supportive of an ambitious programme and whatever the scale that is agreed it will amount to a huge investment in communities across Wales. If homeowners in the private sector were incentivised to retrofit their homes too, the investment could be much larger.

The benefits of taking forward this programme enjoy widespread support, for understandable reasons. Residential housing is responsible for 27 per cent of all UK carbon emissions (if emissions from consumed electricity are included), and social homes contributes around 10 per cent of the contribution from housing. Decarbonising social housing is therefore critical to cutting carbon emissions.

Jobs & training opportunities

According to Community Housing Cymru [1], Wales has some of the oldest and least thermally efficient housing stock in the UK and Europe. Around 32% of the Welsh housing stock was built before 1919 and 155,000 households still face fuel poverty in Wales. CHC estimates that refurbishing half of housing association homes in Wales, over the next term of government, would support over 12,000 jobs, 3,000 training opportunities and create £2.5 billion in economic output.

An important question is how to make this investment happen in a way that maximises the social return. This will be crucial at a time when there are likely to be few opportunities for large scale investment programmes due to the state of public finances in the post pandemic era.

Firstly, we need to make sure this programme creates jobs in Wales and that much of the work is delivered by Welsh based businesses. That way any profits stay in Wales and we develop a skilled workforce, who can hopefully go on to do similar work in the private sector or grow their businesses to operate outside Wales. Housing associations and local councils may be able to develop their capacity to do some of the work themselves, but they are almost certainly going to need to contract out a large part of the work. Work needs to be undertaken to understand the current capability of Welsh businesses and help given to prepare them for the opportunities. Otherwise, the contracts could be lost to large businesses that have no long-term commitment to Wales.

Secondly, we should consider how retrofitting might be delivered in a collaborative way. The Well-being of Future Generations Act encourages integration and collaboration. Already 26 Welsh housing associations are working together with academic and industry partners to create the tools required to roll out the large-scale decarbonisation of homes across Wales. This is a fantastic start. Housing associations do not just work in separate geographical areas. They often own properties in the same local area, so it makes sense they work together.

Retrofit initiatives

However, where local councils have retained their housing stock, there will be properties that need to be retrofitted too. If you add in other public bodies, their buildings and the willing private sector, you have the opportunity for retrofit initiatives that work together on a place basis, rather than an organisational basis. Working together could save money, support local supply chains and result in a programme that minimises disruption for local people.

Local energy generation (solar, wind, air and ground source – even from redundant coal mines in a few cases) should also be considered so that the energy supply is renewable and if possible, locally owned. The fuel crisis and escalating gas prices make this even more important.

Some housing associations are already looking at this. One scheme will oversee the retrofitting of 650 homes in Swansea in partnership with a renewable energy tech and service supplier. As part of the project, solar panels fitted to most of the homes will be used to charge individual or communal batteries that will be installed in all homes. This means that renewable energy can be stored for subsequent use by the entire community and that those whose homes do not receive as much sunlight will not be disadvantaged. It is anticipated that the project will see the community generate as much as 60 per cent of its electricity requirements, reducing bills as well as carbon emissions by as much as 350 tonnes per year.

Similarly, Egni Co-op develops rooftop solar energy schemes in Wales. Egni Co-op gathers lots of people together to invest collectively in rooftop solar. In their latest community share offer, they have raised £4.5 million of investment. Solar panels are then installed on community buildings, such as schools and community centres. In turn those sites get a 20 per cent discount on their electricity. The electricity produced qualifies for a government subsidy through the Feed-in-Tariff. Egni is paid for any excess power which is exported onto the National Grid. The money raised then flows back into the co-op, and is used to pay interest to members, as well as to cover things like ongoing maintenance and development of future projects. The Egni Co-op works with buildings with high onsite use, rather than domestic properties, but they do include care homes and sheltered accommodation schemes.

Developing partnerships

Heat network projects could play a role in helping reduce carbon emissions and reduce bills if partnerships were developed with local businesses. Heat networks are already planned in Cardiff and Bridgend, where excess heat produced at industrial sites will be taken to public buildings in the area in the initial phase. Also known as district heating, the Cardiff heat network project will use underground pipes to transport waste heat from the Viridor Energy Recovery Facility to buildings in and around the Cardiff Bay area. In Bridgend, a new system of distribution pipes will take excess heat from a combined heat and power plant and thermal storage facility. Could similar schemes be developed that heated homes?

And finally, we need to consider how local people are involved. This retrofit programme is going to be disruptive for tenants so they need to be on board to understand why it is happening and how they might benefit. If residents are involved, they will be able to have a say about when the work takes place and how. This will make accessing properties easier. They can also be informed about how to use any new tech- smart thermostats and intelligent heating controls – to maximise energy savings. Residents could also be involved in running energy generation schemes as community co-operatives.

The retrofit programme perhaps provides an opportunity to go a small way in addressing the feelings of being left behind that were expressed during the Brexit referendum. Inequalities have exacerbated since then. In part the Brexit movement reflected the importance of agency and the lack of influence at the individual and community level. The retrofit programme is an opportunity to give ‘power to the people’, literally, and for residents to take back some control about what happens in their locality. The retrofit programme could give a huge boost to the Welsh economy post Covid19. If it were conceived as both a social and an economic programme of renewal, it could do so in ways that give economic opportunity as well as agency to local communities.

Derek Walker is chief executive of the Wales Co-operative Centre and Professor Sir Adrian Webb is chair of Tai Calon and former vice-chancellor of Glamorgan University. This article is an updated version first printed in the welsh agenda magazine published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

1. CHC’s Manifesto for the Senedd Elections 2021, ‘Home – Creating a Better Wales for All.’

Photo of Derek Walker

Derek Walker, CEO of the Wales Co-operative Centre

Photo of Professor Sir Adrian Webb
(photo source:

Professor Sir Adrian Webb, Chair of Tai Calon


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