It’s no easy task second guessing the future. Tackling the housing crisis and climate emergency together will require councils to show leadership, but work in close cooperation with housing professionals to navigate a cultural transformation
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THE future looks different, even if we can’t quite see it yet in all its glorious – or gory – detail, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to take a back seat in its delivery.
When it comes to the combined challenges of meeting housing need, and responding effectively to the climate emergency, councils are right there at the coalface (pun intended) of enabling change; no easy task, but that’s only where the dilemmas begin.
Well, that’s why the guests at Northern Housing’s latest Working Lunch thought leadership event had gathered at Gusto in Manchester: to brainstorm the problems and discuss the nature of any likely solutions.
The theme may have focused on local authorities – looking at the ways they might seek to re-balance new homes to support the climate change agenda – but councils are in no way alone in dealing with the quandary of squaring this particular circle.
Chair Kevin Lowry, from Manchester City Council, dove straight in with the problem at hand, and that’s how to deliver the new homes needed to tackle the housing crisis – in a way that ensures they are net zero carbon – whilst also bringing existing council stock up to a similar standard. Put simply, stockholders face a potential retrofit bill in excess of their stock’s value. That’s a big ‘ouch’.
“Most conventional asset management strategies will tell you, you don’t spend more on [the stock] than it’s worth, so where does that leave us?” Lowry said. “It’s a massive agenda, and traditional approaches are clearly not going to work.”
Housing associations are wrestling with the same conundrum. The cost of retrofitting the nation’s existing housing stock to deliver better energy performance is indeed “astronomical” – likely billions, not millions – agreed Bolton at Home’s Dominic Conway.
Add to this the cost implications of changes to Building Regulations, fire safety remediation works that have emerged post-Grenfell (with likely more to come); the financial pressures faced by councils and registered providers alike are only going upwards.
“And that’s going to be taking funding away from the huge amount of newbuild we need to meet the existing and growing demand [for homes], so it is a challenge,” Conway said. “There’s a lot of asks, and there’s going to be competing asks. Some decisions are going to have to be made.”
Lucy Lovett, from Homes England, added: “It’s a really critical issue. They are two huge priorities and they are not working well together at the moment.”
As Public Sector Plc’s Paul Brown suggested, it sounds cheaper to demolish and rebuild, but that opens a whole new can of worms – the sheer scale of the merry-go-round of decanting households, demolition, building replacements, rehousing – all the while still needing to address the already existing housing demand. Little wonder, housing providers feel compelled to take the retrofit route.
This, of course, brings its own set of problems. There’s the matter of choosing the renewable heating technologies that are right for the properties; one way or another it’s got to last as a solution, much like the ones – say gas – that it is installed to replace did. Then there’s the issue of ongoing maintenance; ensuring operatives have the necessary skills. Likewise, the tenants need to be able to operate the technology – and be comfortable using it – to get the best effect. This isn’t just a technical question: it’s a cultural change, too.
Meanwhile, Fabric First principles for improving a property’s thermal efficiency bring about their own pitfalls (an issue that applies to newbuild as much as retrofit). The better the airtightness, the greater the need for ventilation to combat the build up of moisture in the home, which can cause condensation damp, mould and other problems.
Add to the technology menu, then, a need for mechanical heating and ventilation systems. Again, there are cost implications. There’s the capital outlay on the systems, then the ongoing maintenance costs; there’s also the practical considerations of servicing the equipment. But it doesn’t end there, as Conway pointed out.
Newbuild homes, of course, not only bring in extra revenue through rents, they also represent further assets that a housing provider can borrow against; not so retrofit. It adds to the conundrum, and there’s no easy answer.
Nor does the question of technology end there, as the discussion explored; the housing and climate change agendas may be deeply intertwined but addressing them takes in much else that we take for granted, such as the dominance of the car. Shifting attitudes towards transportation, public and private, inevitably has an impact on placemaking and housing design.
Where does the car sit in our view of the future? Still out there, parked on the driveway; or dismissed in favour of improved access to public transport? It was a vexing, if speculative question for our guests, as they pondered the implications, because one way or another they must factor it into their plans.
For now, the car remains king, but how quickly will internal combustion engines give way to electric vehicles? The shift is already underway, with more demand for charging points on developments. Yet, spurred on by the climate crisis, there is also emerging pressure to ditch the car for improved public transport. Is the era of mass car ownership on the verge of slipping into the history books?
The future is in flux in more ways than one: include car parking and charging facilities in designs today, risks them being obsolete tomorrow. Leave them out, however, risks alienating investors and residents alike. As Conway put it, the sector risks “spending money on today’s whims”.
All told, it makes second guessing the shifting requirements of effective housing delivery all the more convoluted. Even so, everyone around the table accepted the challenge; hardy souls, indeed, but they were clearly aware that, if not them and their peers in the wider industry, then who?
Clearly, modern methods of construction (MMC) can’t make this futurology any easier to navigate, but our guests were adamant that it has a crucial role to play in tackling both the housing crisis and the climate change emergency.
“The way things are going, the zero carbon agenda is starting to become the biggest selling point for MMC; the advantages that it gives is really coming to the fore now,” Wigan Council’s Lee Payne said. “It is time for change. It is time the market was disrupted. MMC is starting to have that effect.”
That may be so, but the UK still lags far behind Europe where modular and offsite methods of building homes have been a conventional approach for generations. Here, for all the recognition of its potential, the perception of it being a ‘new fangled’ curiosity still lingers.
Cultural expectations still run deep, even where MMC finds itself enthusiastically applied in new housing developments. This applies to professional stakeholders as much as it does the public, where new homes must conform to the appearance of the traditional house, even down to fake chimney pots. Old habits die hard, you might say.
Change is coming, however, even if the pace is slow; it’s a matter of engineering the circumstance that will tip evolution into revolution and allow a rapid escalation of the pipeline from factory production line to completed and occupied homes.
Overcoming the cultural ‘time lag’ is going to require even more collaboration between councils and housing associations. It also needs a process of re-education and knowledge sharing throughout the industry, as well as a more society-wide cultural shift in attitudes and expectations. Difficult to achieve, perhaps, but hardly insurmountable.
As Public Sector Plc’s Adam Cunnington observed: “I think change will come quicker than we expect,” he said. “My observation, working with local authorities in the rest of the country, is that there is nowhere quite like the North West for being collaborative, focused, and entrepreneurial.”
Above all, as Lowry emphasises, it’s a question of leadership. Somebody must show the way. “In a city, I think this falls to the city council,” he said. “They have a responsibility to demonstrate civic leadership in the same way national government has a responsibility to lead all of that. But as organisations that also work in communities, we all have a role to contribute.”
For all the complexity, and the headaches involved, it’s a fascinating set of challenges. While it’s impossible to cover everything that was discussed, the flavour was very much on enthusiasm and a determination to exceed expectations. The times are changing – socially, culturally, technologically – and the guests at our working lunch were determined to be in the vanguard.
“It’s social history, isn’t it,” Payne said, as the event wound down. “When it’s written it will be a very interesting chapter to read.”
“Let’s hope it ends well,” Cunnington joked, earning laughter and nods of agreement. Casual humour aside, it’s a pertinent point. The future is not yet written.
To secure it, all our guests at this discussion – along with their colleagues, partners and stakeholders far and wide – must work together to foster a happy ending for us all.
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Chatting with Gusto
Adam Cunnington, chief executive, Public Sector Plc
Paul Brown, chief operating officer, Public Sector Plc
Kevin Lowry, interim director of housing and residential growth, Manchester City Council
Lee Payne, head of service (asset management and development), Wigan Council
Dominic Conway, director of development and growth, Bolton at Home
Lucy Lovett, senior strategy manager, Homes England
Mark Cantrell, editor, Northern Housing magazine