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Why retrofitting is a “no brainer” for the Government this winter

Pictured from left to right: Juliet Phillips (E3G), Sandi Rhys Jones OBE (CIOB), Henry Hill (ConservativeHome), Paul Scully MP (Minister of State for Local Government and Building Safety), Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, Brian Berry (FMB)

Chartered Institute of Building

5 min read Partner content

Last week at Conservative Party Conference, the Chartered Institute of Building partnered with ConservativeHome, the Federation of Master Builders and E3G, for a fringe event discussion about the importance of retrofitting in addressing the climate crisis, keeping down energy bills and improving public health.

The discussion was opened by Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, Brian Berry, who noted that there are 29 million homes in this country, the “vast majority of which need to be improved in terms of their energy efficiency”. Pointing to the fact that we have the “oldest and leakiest housing stock in Europe”, he argued that this has not only had the impact of contributing to spiraling fuel poverty due to the cost of heating homes, but has also had public health consequences, linked to a staggering 10,000 deaths in 2019.

Outlining the scale of the challenge at hand in addressing these problems and the country’s 2050 net zero objective, Berry highlighted that 20% of carbon emissions come from our existing housing stock and, with 85% still expected to be standing by that time, it is going to take a “green revolution” to make a difference.  

Berry articulated the need for the £5.3 billion National Retrofit Strategy called for by industry to be brought forward, predicated on clear and accurate information for consumers, financial incentives, an emphasis on skills and unified standards. Ultimately, he emphasised that retrofitting is a “no brainer in terms of policy”, having the result of reducing CO² emissions and energy bills, while creating much needed jobs in every constituency across the country.

Senior Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Building, Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, followed by echoing the need to fix the “large number of homes we have got” and making them “fit for purpose”, rather than building new homes in isolation. Primarily responding to the “acute skills shortage” in the industry, she highlighted the importance of addressing this and how it can be translated into competency and professionalism in the context of retrofit with a focus on “creative solutions”.

In particular, Rhys Jones articulated how the passion among younger people for sustainability and the environment could be pursued in the workplace by following jobs into the sector. She also illustrated positive initiatives that could be learnt from, including attempts to bolster diversity and inclusion in housing associations by upskilling tenants in basic DIY and using the example of Wales, which has a GCSE in the built environment.

Collectively, Rhys Jones suggested that new ideas focused on working with “employers and owners and contractors” to get more people into the industry could both address the chronic problems with our current housing stock and provide confidence in the market for consumers that repair and maintenance jobs such as retrofit could be “done well”. She also emphasised the need for clarity of message and consistency of policy.

Juliet Phillips, Senior Policy Advisor for E3G’s Clean Economy programme, agreed with the rest of the panel that the scope and scale of the retrofit challenge is “very significant”, citing both the current lack of energy efficiency in the UK’s current homes, alongside the point that “the most inefficient homes are in the most deprived areas”, which poses additional challenges from a levelling up perspective. On finance, she referenced figures from the Climate Change Committee which projects a requirement of £360 billion by 2050 to retrofit all homes and buildings in this country.

However, Phillips stressed that “throwing money at this problem is not enough” and we need to look at the “nuts and bolts of delivery”. While noting progress in recent years from Government such as the Green Homes Grant and, more recently, the £1 billion to expand the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) in the mini-budget, she said there has been some “stalling” in other areas and there needs to be a much greater ambition on the demand side, including a "whole ecosystem of measures to get on track”. 

To achieve this, Phillips vocalised support for ideas on reviewing financial incentives and the development of an “Olympic style retrofit taskforce” to help skills and supply chains rise to the occasion. She suggested that the taskforce and push to develop new technology such as heat pumps could get more young engineers into the market and, in the process make inroads in the effort to achieve a greater gender balance in the industry.

The Minister of State for Local Government and Building Safety, Paul Scully MP, concurred with many of the points mentioned on the panel saying “we know that we need to retrofit” and that the drive behind it “needs to go hand in glove with other ways of energy generation”. He referenced the work in moving towards the Future Homes Standard which will play a role in reducing emissions in new builds, but acknowledged the work that needs to be undertaken in the immediate term to retrofit the existing housing stock.

Scully drew attention to the work already being undertaken with local authorities to retrofit social housing. Meanwhile, for the market more generally, he highlighted the importance of information in empowering consumers to retrofit, combined with the role of Government strategy in driving down the long-term costs of green technology to bring the public onboard.

The individual contributions from each of the panellists were complemented by a broader discussion with the audience around best practice in the global community on retrofitting, the role apprenticeships can play in addressing the current skills shortage, where modular housing fits into the debate and green stamp duty.  

For more information on the challenges of retrofitting the UK's existing housing stock, and what can be done to help deliver a retrofit programme on a national scale, please click here.

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