Learn how Greater Manchester’s smart energy plan will improve energy performance and lower carbon emissions.

Greater Manchester’s energy plan will boost jobs, improve housing and lower emissions

This plan forms part of the 50-point Climate Action Plan for Councils under Action 19, to develop a heating and energy efficiency strategy for the area, including providing skills and training to increase local employment to aid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How is this tackling the climate crisis?

Heating is the single biggest source of carbon emissions in Greater Manchester, creating 36% of the region’s overall emissions, totalling 2.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. To meet its ambitious 2038 carbon-neutral target, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has recognised the need to improve the energy performance of nearly 1.2 million homes (62,000 every year) largely built pre-1980s.

The Smart Energy Plan for GMCA was published in 2019. The plan includes a vision of Greater Manchester as a global leader in smart energy, describing it as “a carbon-neutral city region with an energy system which is smart and fit for the future, low carbon and economically, environmentally and socially sustainable”. However, the plan noted that a major obstacle was the absence of a suitably skilled labour force and contractors.

The Smart Energy Plan provided the foundation for the launch of new initiatives tackling the skills gap. Investment in retrofit (upgrading buildings to boost their energy efficiency) could potentially create 55,000 jobs in the region by 2040.

The combined authority’s aim is to fill the green skills gaps identified by employers in Greater Manchester, creating a low-carbon economy that’s responsive to the needs of individuals, residents and businesses.

To deliver against these aims, GMCA has set up key partnerships to build a local retrofit workforce. This includes working with North West Skills Academy on a Retrofit Skills Hub, as well as working with non-profit Procure Plus to deliver a Skills Bootcamp for Retrofit series. These have been created in partnership with employers, supporting local unemployed people who are facing multiple barriers to gaining employment by helping them access retrofit training courses and boosting job opportunities.

GMCA is also supporting the Your Home Better initiative, which seeks to replicate the success of the Cosy Homes Oxfordshire  programme by convening 9 local retrofit leaders, including RetrofitWorks, Red Co-op and B4Box , to support Greater Manchester’s able-to-pay sector. Able-to-pay householders can afford to make their own energy efficiency improvements, and this sector makes up 31% of the local area. Your Home Better provides a service of retrofit expertise that includes advice, planning and delivery support. By expanding the local able-to-pay retrofit sector, the combined authority will generate greater demand for skilled workers and further incentivise the uptake of retrofit skills training.

GMCA is monitoring progress towards its targets. A 2022 progress report showed it’s behind on the retrofit targets it set, but the authority is determined to get back on track. Ensuring that there’s a workforce with the right skills will be a key part of this.

What impact has it had?

GMCA estimates that retrofitting even 20% of Greater Manchester’s homes would generate economic activity worth between £3 billion and £5.4 billion.

Funding from the European Social Fund supported the combined authority’s 3-year Skills for Growth programme, allowing GMCA to begin investigating how to plug the key skills gaps that are preventing retrofit programmes from progressing.

Retrofit Skills Hub

Using part of this funding, and with further resourcing from the Department for Education, GMCA set up the Retrofit Skills Hub to upskill the local workforce on a range of retrofit and low-carbon heating measures, delivered by the Low Carbon Academy (the retrofit training arm of the North West Skills Academy) in partnership with Manchester College, Oldham College and Fabric CIC.

Initial targets were to train up to 1,140 local people. However, due to the challenges set out below, 396 learners have enrolled in training courses one year on, while only 119 people have completed courses.

Retrofit Skills Bootcamps

GMCA has had very positive responses to its Bootcamp series, which offers learners new skills in construction. In its most recent waves of green skills bootcamps, 92 bootcamp starts and career progressions have been created. It’s also received significant interest from local businesses looking to supporting bootcamps. Many learners have now gained employment in the construction sector, while others are undertaking further training including apprenticeships.

Retrofit Fundamentals for Construction Professional

In 2022, 365 learners enrolled in People Powered Retrofit’s “Retrofit Fundamentals for Construction Professionals” training courses and continuity professional development sessions regarding retrofit.

Carbon savings

GMCA is planning to estimate carbon emissions savings using both the government’s data and local data from its operational partners such as Electricity North West. However, the combined authority notes it’s hard to capture the totality of retrofit emissions savings since these are also impacted by the behaviour of residents.

Challenges from the Retrofit Skills Hub

Designing and delivering a retrofit skills training programme represents new territory for a combined authority, with little best practice existing within local government on which to base a programme. As a result, GMCA experienced several challenges:

  • Lack of incentives for local builders to get upskilled in retrofit, with construction professionals already being in very high demand aside from retrofit.
  • Disparate and unreliable demand among potential trainees, which impacts the services training providers offer as they’re more used to training larger groups.
  • Uncertainty in the sector around qualifications, accreditations and technology, including how these will develop in the immediate future. This is both preventing construction workers from getting upskilled in retrofit as well as limiting younger people from entering green construction.

What are GMCA’s solutions?

The combined authority remains committed to retrofit upskilling and has been conducting an analysis of the Retrofit Skills Hub to develop a second hub that’s capable of overcoming the challenges of the first programme.

It’s identified the following solutions, which other local authorities can also learn from:

  • Aggregating demand for training around large retrofit schemes to demonstrate the economic opportunities connected with upskilling.
  • Adapting course offerings to prioritise those courses that can demonstrate a clear and faster economic benefit, thereby bringing more workers into green skills. An example of this is the Low Carbon Academy adapting course offerings to increase availability of an NVQ Level 2 Insulation course that proved more popular with local workers.

How can central government help?

GMCA is adapting its approach to overcome the challenges it’s encountered. But local authorities also need more support from central government, and GMCA has identified the following actions:

  • Current training pathways need to be expanded to include retrofit, including the integration of retrofit training within existing apprenticeships to ensure that young people entering the construction sector are able to gain retrofit expertise now.
  • More reactive funding opportunities that can be flexible to local needs should be made available, alongside larger decarbonisation programmes such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and Local Authority Delivery funding.
  • Greater revenue should be provided for colleges and training providers to invest in retrofit tutors, as well as capital funding for facilities and equipment to support teaching.

What made it work?

Priority issue

Retrofit is Greater Manchester’s biggest green energy priority. For a highly urbanised area, it provides one of the best opportunities to cut emissions. For that reason, more targeted resources have been channelled towards it, including skills training.

Having the power to act

GMCA has benefited from the greater powers granted through devolution. For example, devolved powers on further education have allowed the authority to approve new Level 3 courses on retrofit and fund them via the sizeable Adult Education Budget. Other combined authorities should follow Greater Manchester’s example and leverage their greater powers in policy areas like education on behalf of smaller local authorities in their regions. GMCA will also benefit from its new “Trailblazer” deal with national government (see below).

Political support

Mayor Andy Burnham has been a forceful advocate for job creation via the green economy. In May 2021, he founded the Greater Manchester Retrofitting Task Force, following through on a key 2019 manifesto pledge.

The Task Force identified upskilling as its major priority, and includes representatives from local and national government, landlords, building authorities, colleges, energy suppliers, investors and industry experts.

In September 2021, People Powered Retrofit, a member of the Task Force, announced its plan to train 3,500 joiners, electricians, builders and plumbers over the next 5 years with money raised from a community share offer.

Working in partnership

GMCA is fostering cross-sector collaboration, particularly between the construction and education sectors. Using existing assets at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford will be crucial.

For example, Manchester Met is home to the Manchester Fuel Cell Innovation Centre, where the university delivers outreach to schools to teach secondary pupils about hydrogen fuel cells. The University of Salford’s Energy House is a life-size laboratory, permitting real testing of construction materials and equipment to help companies shape research and develop new construction skills.

Demonstrating demand

Intelligence gathering to prove demand has been critical in Greater Manchester’s experience. The city region has taken steps to demonstrate the investment numbers on a region-wide scale to evidence the massive demand for construction skills and reassure businesses. For example, GMCA produced a study in August 2021 that evidenced £14.1 billion of investment in construction over the next 5 years.

What resources were needed?

GMCA was able to award £1.1 million to the Low Carbon Academy through the European Social Fund (2014-2020), established by the EU to fund its European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme in England. This was for retraining and upskilling local people to improve the energy efficiency of the region’s buildings. The package is part of Greater Manchester’s wider work via the Skills for Growth Programme.

A further £500,000 was awarded to the Academy through Department for Education funding, this time focusing on training the unemployed or those switching careers.

Utilising funding from the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee initiative, GMCA has committed to an expansion of its Retrofit Skills Bootcamps in 2023 with an investment of £1.5 million into 5 further programmes.

Securing these contracts involved about 15 people across different GMCA teams.

The Smart Energy Plan was written in tandem with the independent research centre Energy Systems Catapult as part of the government’s Smart Systems and Heat Phase 2, a programme of trials exploring ways to overcome the challenge of decarbonising residential heating. This was backed by funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Future resourcing: Trailblazer deal

GMCA will be benefiting from additional funding and powers under the new Trailblazer deeper devolution deal agreed with the UK government. The deal creates increased flexibilities around adult education and commissioned programmes that’ll better enable the combined authority to respond to spikes in demand for upskilling on retrofit. For example, GMCA anticipates being able to set funding rates for accredited and non-accredited training, enabling it to incentivise provision of certain training areas that are most needed by employers undertaking retrofit work.

Lessons learned

Engage the existing local industry

GMCA has been able to tap into Manchester’s significant construction sector. Diversification of the region’s existing skills base, supporting companies and employees who have relevant expertise to expand into retrofit, is a central pillar of the authority’s plan.

A robust retrofit market will encompass many skills, including surveying, design, property assessment, installation, customer care and ongoing maintenance. So, a wide variety of training must be offered.

Understand the sector

The UK construction sector consists largely of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) or self-employed people. In Greater Manchester, the figure is between 35% to 40%. Smaller businesses are less able to take time away from income-generating activities than larger organisations and have less incentive to release staff for training or to invest in green upskilling, which is why fully-funded training opportunities, like those offered through Skills for Growth, are so important.

Additionally, demand for domestic tradespeople has rocketed as homeowners undertake new renovations following strict coronavirus lockdowns, meaning busy tradespeople have less economic incentive to retrain.

As a key partner for achieving net-zero targets, the sector and its workers must be positively engaged and appropriately supported.

Be willing to adapt processes during delivery

This approach still makes sense but hasn’t been without its challenges, so the authority has had to be flexible, making the following changes to boost uptake:

  • Adapt courses for local employers. GMCA adapted some of the specific retrofit-related training courses that were offered to local employers to encourage them to upskill in retrofit. This was enabled by GMCA’s procurement team being proactive in their delivery and being responsive to the requirements of the local workforce.
  • Engage the local workforce and offer consistency. Despite the availability of fully-funded retrofit upskilling programmes, difficulties did still arise when engaging local construction professionals to undertake qualifications in retrofit. This is in part due to many construction workers being at full capacity without taking on retrofit work. Many construction professionals can also be hesitant to engage with government-funded retrofit programmes due to previous inconsistencies in policy and funding by central government.
  • Target early adopters first. GMCA has been targeting its efforts towards willing “early adopters” within the construction sector, with the aim of establishing and growing the market. Although this has been slower than hoped, it’s still a valid strategy. Once a viable market is proven, others will be encouraged to follow suit.

Start with social housing

For other councils looking at retrofit work, beginning with social housing is recommended. Developments are generally built at similar times, located in the same place and owned by the same people. It’s logical and easier to start here than with residential housing stock, which varies in type and has multiple owners. Not only will this grow the market, but for social housing tenants retrofitting also means lower energy bills, which are key to combatting fuel poverty and prioritising the most vulnerable.

“The conversation keeps coming back to skills. There’s hesitation and concerns about supply chains and whether there are people to do the work. Skills and collaboration are the key elements. The market is there. In Greater Manchester, we’re lucky to have a figurehead like Mayor Andy Burnham driving green skills and training so that we can lead on this.”

-Joe Crolla, Industry Skills Intelligence Lead at Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Useful information

To find out more, contact Joe Crolla – joseph.crolla@greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk

Friends of the Earth’s view

It’s good to see that GMCA is joining up the need to improve the energy efficiency of homes with the need to re-skill the workforce to deliver the necessary retrofitting. This is fundamental to addressing inequalities/levelling up and cutting carbon, but it’s still lacking in too many councils’ Climate Action Plans.

However, it’s worrying to learn of the challenges facing GMCA in delivering planned skills training, and that delivery on retrofit targets is well behind schedule. This needs to be urgently addressed, so it’s good that GMCA is looking at ways to get its training back on track. It must use its increased powers and resources from the new Trailblazer devolution deal to boost skills training and ramp up delivery of energy efficiency improvements.

There are lessons for national government here too. It must increase investment in retrofit skills training and give all local authorities, not just Trailblazers, the ability to match local skills training to the gaps that need to be filled to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Councils should also ensure that new housing is built to the highest energy efficiency standards to avoid the need for costly retrofits in the future (Action 16 of the Climate Action Plan). Manchester City Council is leading the way in the Greater Manchester area with the development of a zero-carbon standard for new buildings when the Local Plan is updated in 2023.

Friends of the Earth is showcasing specific examples of good practice in tackling climate change, but that doesn’t mean we endorse everything that a council is doing.

This case study was produced by Ashden and Friends of the Earth. It was originally published in March 2022 and was last updated in September 2023.

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