Our homes are responsible for 35% of UK energy use, and emit 20% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. We can’t create a low-carbon UK without drastic action to make them more efficient.
Local authorities play a key role in tackling this challenge, but with limited resources they must collaborate and avoid re-inventing the wheel. Innovation by authorities in South West England, explored in this briefing, shows the potential for forward-thinking councils to create impact.
Their efforts have been supported by Ashden’s learning network for local authorities in the region. Launched in 2021, the network allows councils to share best practice and speed up home decarbonisation. The network has been supported by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) Foundation, as part of its focus on scaling up the delivery of whole house retrofit. Since the network started council activity has ramped up across the region at an impressive rate.
The UK has the worst insulated housing stock in Western Europe. While there has been welcome government funding to improve the energy efficiency of homes occupied by people on low incomes, this covers just a small fraction of the properties that must be upgraded. Meanwhile, households have faced record energy bills, forcing many people to make tough choices on when to heat their homes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there has been growing interest in home retrofit, with leading building merchant Travis Perkins reporting that most tradespeople are getting more enquiries on work to improve energy efficiency. But many householders have very limited knowledge of what action to take, and there is a real shortage of builders with the right retrofit skills. Local councils can help on both these fronts.
Across the region, councils have stepped up to encourage and support residents to retrofit their homes, with a range of initiatives and services.
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Retrofit West CIC is a new community interest company formed by the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) to accelerate home and building retrofit activity in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath & North East Somerset. Funded by the West of England Combined Authority, Retrofit West will establish a one-stop-shop advisory service for homeowners carrying out ‘whole house’ retrofitting activities on their homes. The service will encourage and support homeowners through the entire process, from initial thoughts about retrofit works, through planning interventions and on to the completion of installations. Retrofit West will also help to build local supply chains and green skills opportunities, and will support micro and small businesses, such as builders and those carrying out repairs, maintenance and improvements.
Devon County Council has partnered with local authorities and community groups in the county to form Energy Saving Devon (ESD), offering retrofit advice to local residents. Currently the service provides free online home energy plans via the Energy Saving Devon website. It also offers in-depth property assessments to develop whole house plans. These deliver customer retrofit goals over stages. The plans are produced by retrofit assessors and co-ordinators working for the community groups.
The community groups report a strong demand for the service and have an ambition to offer co-ordination of installation works in the future. The ESD partnership has also produced a retrofit handbook, which offers technical advice on the measures most suitable for different house archetypes in Devon. The handbook Is aimed at installers and householders who want to undertake the retrofit themselves. It will be published in summer 2023.
Working at a smaller scale, Mendip District Council partnered with Somerset County Council, neighbouring district councils, Glastonbury, Bruton and Frome Town Councils, the Centre of Sustainable Energy and the Green Register on the Somerset Retrofit Accelerator project. This offers residents subsidised home energy assessments and plans. The council reported a high demand from local householders and are also offered free retrofit training for local construction businesses. It also created four online tours of local homes that have been retrofitted and a green directory listing local businesses that can help homeowners improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
One of the aims of Ashden’s regional learning network programme is to introduce councils to emerging new work. One example is Furbnow, a new service taking an innovative approach to providing homeowner advice on retrofit. Furbnow have thought carefully about how to design home energy plans that are readily understandable by ordinary people, while containing sufficient technical detail. Furbnow offer different levels of support for householders, ranging from consultation and quality assurance for homeowners taking a DIY approach, to full project management for those that prefer to be more hands-off. Furbnow are based in the West Midlands but are expanding to other areas including South West England in 2024.
While interest in retrofit is growing, we are a long way from mass-adoption. Stroud District Council, who are setting up a new retrofit service for councils in Gloucestershire, are keen to make home energy efficiency exciting for a much wider audience. Stroud are working with London South Bank University and Ashden to research effective messaging on retrofit and to inform the set up of their new service.
Working with focus groups we’ve been testing the idea of the ‘retrofit ladder’, encouraging soft retrofit such as thicker curtains as a starting point to get people thinking about the larger measures they can take. By linking energy with lifestyle choices around creating a cosy, aesthetically-pleasing home, people may start to see energy efficiency as a key part of any home improvement they undertake.
New resources to help councils are being published. UK Green Building Council will shortly launch a new version of their retrofit playbook with practical guidance for councils on setting up retrofit services, including help with business case creation.
As initiatives get underway in the South West and beyond, some key lessons are emerging.
The term retrofit is not widely understood. Our research in Stroud indicates that residents associate ‘retro’ with looking backwards – making homes ‘future fit’ and ‘futureproof’ is more effective.
Retrofit can be complex, and residents can easily be confused by technical terms such as ‘U-value’ and ‘thermal bridge’. Assessment reports and plans should be designed carefully to use simple language, pictures and straightforward explanations.
Every homeowner is different. For those on low budgets, the concept of the retrofit ladder is helpful – starting with the simple measures and when money allows, doing more. But a whole house plan at the start of the journey is important so that the right sequence of work is followed. Some people may want to undertake a whole house energy upgrade straight away, particularly if it is part of a comprehensive renovation. People also differ on the levels of support they need, light touch advice will be fine for some households whereas others will want a complete project management service.
Councils across South West England and beyond are working to boost retrofit but some major barriers remain. There are few incentives for people on average incomes to make their homes more energy efficient, and there is a huge gap in retrofit skills. Ashden and others are calling for a national retrofit strategy accompanied by a retrofit skills mission – we’ve recently published policy briefings on creating warmer homes and solving the retrofit skills crisis. For further information on our policy work contact Cara Jenkinson at email@example.com.
A common theme emerging from discussions with local authorities is that they require support to build capacity for developing and delivering retrofit programmes. MCS Charitable Foundation has been working with local authorities to provide funding to help build capacity and share learning across different councils.
Among the projects that MCS Charitable Foundation is set to fund are skills and training programmes, ‘one-stop-shop’ advice hubs for homeowners looking to retrofit their homes, and pilots for innovative financing to help expand the retrofit market. MCS Charitable Foundation will be gathering the learning from these programmes; to find out more get in touch with Jamie at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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