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CAR reviews retrofit initiatives in social housing

Improving energy efficiency in social housing is a key priority for the Government, but current progress is weak and financial and other barriers stop social landlords from going as far as they need to in order to meet national objectives. 

CAR and Muon Events interviewed 40 social landlords and eight retrofit ‘suppliers’ who carry out retrofit work on social housing or are part of the retrofit supply chain, to discuss what the barriers are and how the Government could help them to overcome these barriers. The work was qualitative, not quantitative, and sought to provide more first-hand insights about issues identified in previous research. 

We asked five main questions to provide insights about the process of justifying and carrying out retrofits, how best to advise social landlords about retrofit work, whether they are concerned about moisture issues, and whether they have been affected by the Hackitt Review. 

1. What are the barriers to procuring retrofit work in social housing? 

So far, there appear to be structural issues within both housing associations and local authorities that make it hard to link thermal retrofit work to routine maintenance. There are usually separate budgets for each, and often there are different framework contracts in place for ‘improvement’ work (including thermal retrofit) and maintenance. Sometimes different people are responsible for each, and there are sometimes communication problems between them. 

Sometimes work is hampered by limited knowledge about thermal retrofit – either by the housing provider or their suppliers. Inevitably, limited funding was raised as an important barrier, and staff cuts in housing providers make it harder to undertake retrofit work. Several interviewees also said that retrofit is a low priority in their organisations, and replacing bathrooms or kitchens, or new homes, are seen as more important. 

2. How do social landlords approach procurement? 

Most of the social landlords we spoke to outsource both maintenance and improvement work. They typically use framework agreements with suppliers, which allow them to appoint contractors directly or to run mini competitions to select contractors. This is much faster and simpler than doing Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) procurement for each contract, but they can constrain work and dictate what social landlords are able to do. 

Around half of the social landlords have dedicated energy efficiency budgets, and some of the larger ones (such as Clarion) use a Planned Works Strategy to target properties with low Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) ratings and carry out retrofit work. In Clarion’s case they prioritise homes below an‘E’ SAP rating first, and their target is to raise them to at least a ‘D’ rating by 2035. 

3. What would drive more retrofit work? 

Interviewees had many suggestions about how to drive more upgrades: ‘Best In Class’ guidance describing how to draw up maintenance and improvement contracts, and/or additional sticks and carrots to make retrofit a higher priority, and/or simplify the application process for Energy Company Obligation (ECO) funding. 

Stock condition surveys are also important in most social landlords’ decision to intervene and retrofit homes. Often they maintain databases of their stock, which commonly record when items such as boilers or windows need replacing. There may be opportunities for Government to work with the grain of condition surveys and databases – possibly by linking advice about retrofit to existing tools for managing stock surveys – like Parity Projects’ CROHM service. 

4. Are social landlords worried about moisture and condensation issues? 

Interviewees were divided on this question. A majority said that they were a concern – but this ranged from a significant concern to a minor consideration. Mostly, they said that the risk of moisture and condensation would not put them off retrofitting homes. Five interviewees said they were unconcerned about moisture effects of retrofit work. 

Many interviewees said that tenants have a significant role in avoiding or sometimes causing condensation problems, recognising that occupant behaviour often needs to change after retrofit work – especially relating to ventilation. Some interviewees said that it is challenging to educate tenants about changes they should make when their homes have been improved. 

5. What impact has the Hackitt Review had? 

The Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent review of Building Regulations, fire safety and compliance have clearly had a major impact on social housing providers. Most interviewees are watching the Hackitt Review closely. A handful of interviewees said they have postponed retrofit work pending the outcomes of the Review, but much more commonly the social landlords have transferred budgets that would have been allocated to retrofit and improvement work to fire safety reviews. Where necessary, they have also invested in improved fire safety measures, and in a few instances they have stripped off external wall insulation (EWI) where this was assessed as bringing unnecessary fire risk. 

Our research will be published on GOV.UK soon.