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Eco 2021: Retrofitting for the future

OPINION: Prof Linda Clarke calls for an accountable, large scale and high quality retrofit programme

11 January, 2021 — By Professor Linda Clarke

Carlton Chapel House

THE built environment contributes around 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint, almost half from energy used in buildings and infrastructure.

Newly constructed buildings are more energy saving, except that many are constructed with carbon-intensive concrete, but 80 per cent of buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been built, so a major priority is decarbonising the existing stock.

Indeed, Britain has one of the highest proportions of buildings in Europe built before 1945 and generally “hard to heat”, resulting in many estates suffering fuel poverty.

In small recognition of the possibilities this situation presents in addressing climate change and creating new employment opportunities, the government recently offered a Green New Deal package of £3bn, of which £2bn is envisaged for Green Homes, £1bn for energy efficiency and £50m for social housing upgrade.

This compares with £12bn in France and £36bn in Germany, which has a far lower proportion of ‘hard to heat’ building stock.

In June 2020, Camden presented its 5-year Climate Action Plan, having held a Citizen’s Assembly in 2019, envisaging all major developments to be zero carbon and reliant on 100 per cent renewable energy. In Camden, the Passivhaus retrofits in Agar Grove and at Carlton Chapel House in Kentish Town.

But such projects are like a drop in the ocean, considering that Camden owns 30,000 homes. Plans on a much greater scale are needed.

Already across the country retrofit campaigns are being initiated, including in Leeds by Leeds Trade Union Council (TUC) and in Battersea and Wandsworth TUC, together with the Greener Jobs Alliance, representing a partnership between unions and campaigning groups.

Leeds TUC campaigns for a large scale and deep retrofitting programme to high insulation standards and for the use of renewables, including heat pumps. This programme should be coordinated by the council in partnership with unions, practitioners, community groups and Further Education Colleges and address above all poor housing conditions, high energy costs, fuel poverty and consequent health problems.

The danger is that, without confronting the problems involved, any Green New Deal initiative could end up as a repeat of the 2013 Green Deal, which included the certification of workers installing energy saving interventions and was premised on the ‘Golden Rule’ that the costs involved would be offset by the energy savings.

This was launched with a £200 million budget, with ministers projecting 250,000 possible jobs and claiming that 14 million homes would be made more energy efficient by 2020. In July 2015, with just 10,000 households benefitting, the government stopped funding.

This earlier “Green Deal” exposed the difficulties entailed in retrofitting on an individual basis and seeking to embed low energy construction by certificating and training particular skills on a one-off basis without a comprehensive rethink of the entire vocational education and training (VET) system for construction and the organisation of the construction process.

Zero energy construction requires a high standard of knowledge and know-how, including physics and how to achieve air tightness, as well as integrated teamworking to bridge occupational and professional interfaces.

Yet the number of construction trainees, including apprentices, have declined dramatically over many decades and the industry faces a major skills shortage crisis, not helped by Brexit.

With half of the construction workforce “self-employed” and a reliance on micro firms and extensive subcontracting, there hardly exists an infrastructure for work-based training and colleges themselves have been starved of funds and facilities.

The alternative is for the councils to rely more on their own resources and to work with the colleges, the unions and local organisations to achieve the energy literate skilled construction workforce required for large-scale retrofitting of council property.

Glasgow City Council has shown the way, with 2,200 construction workers directly employed in its City Building workforce, innovative low energy new build housing and retrofit schemes, and a comprehensive four-year training programme for 250 trainees. Islington Council is also half-way there, having now in-sourced the repair and maintenance of its properties.

Just as local authorities have addressed the housing crisis in the past with their new build council housing schemes, so they can today in partnership address the climate emergency and play a central role in planning and carrying out the retrofitting of their properties with their own well-trained workforces, employed under good conditions.

This then is the vision for an accountable, large-scale, and high quality retrofit programme focused on energy saving rather than accommodating to energy demand.

Professor Linda Clarke is from the Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment at the University of Westminster


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