An expert panel has come up with seven ways that the government can start cutting carbon emissions from our energy-spewing housing stock – and it’s going to take a lot more than just turning down the heating

Next week the government had been due to launch a set of consultations to canvas opinions and advice on how it should make buildings greener. Sceptics say the consultations have been delayed because the government doesn’t know how it is going to meet its hugely ambitious carbon reduction targets – 80% by 2050.

This is a massive task, and one that cannot be achieved without addressing housing, which emits 27% of the UK’s greenhouse gases. Building’s 99% campaign has highlighted the fact urgent action needs to be taken to improve the current built stock if targets are to be met – and the consultations earmarked for next week were to have addressed just that topic.

So, conscious that the government is still looking for ideas, the Smith Institute, in conjunction with Wates Living Space, the Housing Forum and architect HTA, convened a panel of over 20 industry experts to try to thrash out exactly what it can do.

So, seven suggestions. Whether the government takes the advice remains, of course, to be seen.


It’s a simple fact, though not one that often goes down well with the government, that improving the energy performance of existing homes will take an enormous amount of cash. Panellists estimated that the cost of tackling the problem will be anything between £3-8bn each year for the next 20 years. The question is, who pays – homeowners, landlords, tenants or the government?

So far, the government has not put much public money into the effort. But John Alker, head of public affairs at the UK Green Building Council, said policy makers were starting to recognise that this approach must change if targets are to be met. He said: “There’s been a reluctance on the government’s part to subsidise measures that, in time, will pay back the homeowner.” In other words, why spend government money subsidising what it’s already in the consumer’s interest to do? “But,” he added “the climate change bill [which received royal assent last month] changed all that. You can’t overestimate the impact that the move from a 60% to an 80% carbon reduction target will have over the next 15 years.”

Give social landlords more freedom

Representatives from registered social landlords (RSLs) around the table said they were keen to improve the energy efficiency of the two million homes under their control, but that the current system of rent regulation means they can’t afford it.

Under government regulations, RSLs are only allowed to increase their rents in line with inflation, so are unable to charge tenants more money for homes that are cheaper to live in. This means they can’t benefit from investing in energy efficiency measures. Grahame Hindes, chief executive of RSL Octavia Housing and Care, said: “At the moment all the savings from improvements go to the residents and the costs fall to the landlord. It’d be very simple to change that.” Without such a change, panellists felt that RSLs, who are already under financial pressure, would be unlikely to be able to help. However, if flexibility was granted then RSLs could make the investment without needing extra government support.

Provide cash up front

Panellists came up with a scheme whereby the government would pay the upfront costs of energy efficiency improvements such as cavity wall insulation, with the investment paid back by the homeowner over a period of up to 25 years. Alker suggested the payment should be like a service charge attached to the property, so if the occupant moved house in the intervening time the new owner would complete the repayments.

Pay attention to homeowners

Many panellists suggested that one obstacle to improving energy efficiency is the lack of understanding of the behavioural factors that affect how much power residents use. There can be, for example, a huge disparity in energy use between identical buildings, but very little is known about the reasons for this or how it might begin to be changed. Matthew Bush, environmental sustainability manager at Metropolitan Housing Partnership, said: “There’s work to do to understand better how people use their homes. What information inspires people to change their behaviour?” If more was known about this, panellists suggested, then the government could better target incentives to persuade people to make improvements themselves.

Tackle construction skills

If a programme of home efficiency improvement secured funding, it would still depend on workers with the relevant skills being available to carry out the work. Panellists expressed concern that the construction industry does not currently have sufficient skills in this area, and said that they wanted more to be done to plug the gap.

Treat it as a national infrastructure priority

Because the payback periods are likely to be long, a number of panellists suggested that the government should take the lead in creating the infrastructure to supply low-carbon energy to homes. This could be done through the promotion of Energy Services Companies (ESCOs), but would be unlikely to be afforded without significant public investment. Mike De’Ath, director at architect HTA said: “What we’re talking about is a national programme. It’s a long-term patient investment model, like the great infrastructure programmes of the Victorian era and only the government is in a position to make this happen.”

Set a target

Clear targets exist for zero-carbon new-build properties – to 2016 for housing and 2019 for commercial buildings – which have acted as a catalyst for the industry to start taking action. But panellists pointed out that there is no overarching government target for improving energy efficiency in the existing stock. Kevin O’Reilly from East Thames Group, said:

“If we had a central target we could believe in then we could work towards it.”

Original print headline - Economy 7

Organisations that attended the roundtable discussion

UK Green Building Council, Town and Country Planning Association, Homes and Communities Agency, HTA Architects, The Housing Forum, Homes for Harringey, Metropolitan Housing Partnership, Building magazine, Wates Living Space, Octavia Housing and Care, Circle Anglia, Housing Corporation, East Thames Group, National Housing Federation, Chartered Institute of Housing, Local Government Association, The Housing Finance Corporation