Britain has the oldest housing stock in Europe, and it is notoriously inefficient. Millions of people live in damp, poorly insulated properties, and there are multiple gains from improving them. Efficient homes would be healthier and more comfortable as well as cheaper to run and with lower carbon emissions. And yet, this obvious win-win climate solution seems to be neglected, year after year.
Mass retrofitting will have to be part of Britain’s plans to reach net zero carbon by 2050, but we’ll never drag our housing stock into the 21st century by leaving it to individual owners acting one at a time. It’s expensive, for a start. It’s also confusing – I’m very interested in this area, and consistently find it hard to find good information. There’s also little incentive for landlords to improve homes they rent out, which risks leaving those on lower incomes with substandard housing.
To really make a difference, it would be helpful to have standardised approaches, and big projects that secure economies of scale. Larger projects also raise skill levels in an area, making it easier for everyone who comes later. (Confidence in local builders has been a major obstacle to my own efforts to make our home zero carbon.) With that in mind, I have an eye out for any front-runners in mass retrofitting, and there’s one on the horizon in Wales.
The Swansea Bay City Deal is a partnership for regenerating and investing in the coastal regions of South-West Wales. There are a number of headline projects to it, one of which is the Homes As Power Stations scheme. This would cover 3,000 new-build homes and 7,000 retrofitted properties. All ten thousand homes would be low carbon, equipped with heat pumps, solar and storage and the capacity to deliver energy back to the grid when not used on site.
If the efficiencies from the pilot project are replicated, then these low carbon homes would bring costs down from an average of £71 a week spent on energy to £3. That would make a major difference to families struggling with their energy bills, cutting rates of energy poverty in the area.
Among the stated aims of the project are to establish a supply chain for low carbon retrofitting, and establish the region as a centre of excellence. “Ultimately we’re looking to create an industry which could be picked up by private sector as well as public sector construction” says Andrea Lewis, a local politician. That’s exactly the kind of intervention government can organise – a big project that establishes the skills and networks, brings down costs, and kickstarts wider transformation. When are we going to see something like that for Britain as a whole?