Junior Programme Officer
Wiltshire Council runs a fuel poverty support service and is retrofitting council housing. This case study relates to Actions 11 and 13 of the 50-point Climate Action Plan for Councils. Action 11 includes targeting policies, actions and spending towards people most at risk of fuel poverty, while Action 13 involves retrofitting council-owned properties.
Wiltshire Council is investing in a diverse range of support for vulnerable residents over both the short-term and longer-term by tackling emissions from buildings and addressing fuel poverty simultaneously. According to latest government figures, 21,724 households in Wiltshire – roughly 10% – live in fuel poverty, in turn contributing to between 300-400 cold-related deaths every year in the county. The real figure, however, is likely to be higher, because government statistics date back to 2020 and don’t account for the impact of the ongoing energy crisis. Homes in Wiltshire’s most deprived areas experience higher levels of fuel poverty, with 17% of these households being fuel poor.
Warm and Safe Wiltshire
Warm and Safe Wiltshire is a pioneering initiative by Wiltshire Council and Swindon Borough Council, which was set up in response to National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance on excess winter deaths and illness and the health risks associated with cold homes. It’s run by the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) on the councils’ behalf. Warm and Safe acts as a single point of contact for energy advice, with the aim of reducing fuel poverty in Wiltshire and reducing preventable excess winter death rates, hospital admissions and GP visits through offering free, varied and holistic support for vulnerable, fuel-poor residents. And with 26% of Wiltshire’s carbon emissions coming from homes, it’s also cutting emissions by improving energy efficiency.
Warm and Safe advisors:
Warm and Safe has made ongoing efforts to ensure its support reaches overlooked residents, including Boater and Traveller communities who may experience fuel poverty but also have no fixed address. Partnering with local single-issue organisations such as the homeless charity Julian House has enabled the service to be more inclusive and accessible to those with complex needs.
Through CSE, Warm and Safe has been allied with the healthcare sector, with 2 caseworkers embedded at Great Western Hospital in Swindon and Salisbury Foundation Hospital between 2018 and 2022. These caseworkers taught healthcare staff to spot signs of fuel poverty via regular training delivered in team meetings and a 30-minute e-learning module to reinforce lessons. Warm and Safe worked across wards, but also with discharge teams to ensure that patients weren’t being returned to cold, unhealthy homes (which may result in future re-admissions). The project has now come to an end, and one hospital-based caseworker has moved into a Warm and Safe community caseworker role, working with Wiltshire Council reablement teams and providing wider support to primary care staff who visit people in their homes, such as physiotherapists, training them to spot the signs of fuel poverty.
Warm and Safe has seen a marked increase in demand for its services as a result of the energy crisis. The period July-September 2022 saw calls increase by 44% compared with the same period in 2021. Call duration has increased by 50%, a sign of the complex situations people are facing – often a combination of fuel poverty, debt issues and food insecurity. In that same July-September period, the Warm and Safe website registered 6,082 hits, 71% of which were new visitors to the site.
In response to the energy crisis, Wiltshire Council has launched a network of Warm Spaces over the 2022/23 winter season, where people can shelter from the cold and connect with others. Sixty-eight voluntary organisations have signed up to the scheme and all of Wiltshire’s libraries have become Warm Spaces. At each of the 22 libraries, a lead librarian has been appointed specialising in energy debt and fuel poverty. They’re being trained up through the newly launched Rural Community Energy Support Network, a 2-year project run by the CSE. The network aims to train dozens of Energy Champions at a local level across Wiltshire and Somerset, spreading the word across a range of energy essentials – including bill and debt advice, heating options and controls, insulation and minor retrofit measures – within their own communities. The 2 schemes have aligned perfectly, so that everyone who volunteers to help run a Warm Space is given the option of becoming an Energy Champion.
Housing Energy Efficiency Programme for council housing
Wiltshire Council recognises that energy-saving advice, though powerful, can only go so far in remedying the more systemic problem of poor-quality, cold housing. That’s why, in 2021, the council launched the Housing Energy Efficiency Programme (HEEP) . This initiative aims to bring the energy rating of all 5,300 council houses in Wiltshire up to an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) B rating over the next 10 years, starting with low-income, energy-inefficient properties. As the landlord, the council has direct control over this housing, making it an obvious place to start.
The programme was kickstarted by the council’s successful bid to the Local Authority Delivery Green Homes Grant. This enables the council to start with the improvement of 90 homes, which’ll receive whole-house retrofit up to PAS 2035 standards (the recognised retrofit standard). The council hopes this’ll be a springboard on the way to retrofitting a target of 500 properties annually.
Part of the HEEP is the refurbishment of 2 council houses to be exemplar homes, showing off the improvements retrofit work can deliver. Each of these 3-bedroom properties will receive solar PV and an intelligent hot water cylinder. One will have an air-source heat pump installed, while the other will have infrared panels fitted to the ceilings in each room. Infrared panels will heat objects and the whole building fabric, which’ll then act as a thermal store releasing heat gradually. Both of these properties will be monitored for energy use, solar energy gained and used, thermal comfort and humidity to gain data that’ll pave the way for future direction.
The council also set up a retrofit forum to meet with housing associations in the area, big and small, and help guide them. All the largest associations in Wiltshire – Aster, GreenSquareAccord and Selwood – have just submitted bids to the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund for energy-efficiency improvements.
Finance and health – Since April 2020, Warm and Safe has supported over 7,000 households across Wiltshire and Swindon. As of September 2022, it’d cumulatively saved £895,000 for clients, the vast majority of whom are fuel poor and/or have a long-term health condition. The ongoing impact of the HEEP will also be to deliver financial savings and healthier, warmer homes that are better for residents’ health.
Jobs and skills – Warm and Safe set up a Covid Recovery Fund, which provides heating improvements for vulnerable households. This fund enabled 2 trainees to be employed. The positions were offered to local young people affected by lack of job opportunities due to COVID-19. Developing a local whole-house retrofit industry via the HEEP will create new jobs and apprenticeships both within the council and with suppliers, with the council training up its own Retrofit Assessors and Retrofit Coordinators.
Reduced pressure on healthcare – By addressing the root causes of health conditions associated and exacerbated by fuel poverty, Warm and Safe has helped free up hospital bed spaces. This has been especially critical during the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drawing in funding – Warm and Safe’s exemplary work enabled both the council and CSE to obtain additional funding to support vulnerable communities during the pandemic. Better Care Funding awarded through the Health and Wellbeing Board has allowed the appointment of a community caseworker to directly work across health services. Energy Redress funding has supported the 2 caseworkers at both of the main hospitals as well as funding to provide prepayment meter top-ups. Wiltshire Community Foundation has funded the Surviving Winter Grants of £200 per household, and the Household Support Grant from Wiltshire Council has offered financial support to Boater and Traveller communities.
Carbon emission savings – At the end of the 10-year HEEP retrofit programme, Wiltshire estimates it’ll achieve a 15,000-tonne carbon emission reduction annually.
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Joined-up approach – Wiltshire Council combines different streams of work into a strategic approach to fuel poverty, ranging from simple energy-saving advice all the way up to whole-house deep retrofit. Connecting the dots will have greater impact than isolated one-off or standalone projects.
Progressive attitude – When initial discussions about retrofit began in 2020, both officers and councillors wanted to push the boundaries of what could be achieved. An attitude of “let’s do what we can” meant aiming for the higher EPC B rating (as opposed to the government’s 2030 target of C rating), with the eradication of fossil fuels for heating and hot water.
Officers subsequently ran statistical analysis for 2 costed scenarios: cheapest heating appliances versus going fossil-fuel free. First the council’s housing board and then its elected members agreed to the second option unanimously. The objective of providing the right housing solutions for the right people fit well with the climate agenda, making the decision a “no-brainer” – a view promoted by former housing portfolio holder and now Wiltshire Council Leader, Councillor Richard Clewer, whose close relationships with officers helped get everyone on the same page.
Tenant engagement – The council’s Resident Engagement Team invests time in building the trusting human relationships with end users that are vital for tackling fuel poverty and for take-up of retrofit. The council website also offers guides explaining various retrofit measures, such as cavity wall insulation and air-source heat pumps, in simple, understandable language. The website additionally offers advice on accredited tradespeople to carry out retrofit work.
Committed officers – Wiltshire has dedicated council officers who act as champions both within the council and in communities. For instance, Public Health Consultant Rachel Kent won the Heat Heroes Award from the charity National Energy Action in 2016 for her work on setting up the Warm and Safe service.
Green skills – The council is in the process of re-procuring all the maintenance contracts associated with council housing stock. The various retrofit works under the HEEP – insulation, heating, lighting, windows/doors, solar PV – will be delivered through these new contracts. The council is drawing up multiple, smaller contracts to enable local SMEs to bid for the work. Contractors know that there’s a 10-year pipeline of work, and so have security and an incentive to invest in staff to develop the necessary skills to deliver the HEEP.
The council is also recruiting for and upskilling its internal Property Services Team. It hopes to expand the team and offer trades apprenticeships with retrofit-related skills relevant to the HEEP.
Cutting-edge technology – Wiltshire has brought on board tech firm Q-Bot, whose underfloor robot is deployed into hard-to-reach gaps in houses to install underfloor insulation without causing huge disruption to residents. Incorporating innovative, proven retrofit technologies into the HEEP will speed Wiltshire on its way towards its target of 500 retrofitted council properties per year.
Warm and Safe is run by Wiltshire Council’s public health team with a focus on the health outcomes of living in cold homes, while retrofit improvements are being delivered by the strategic assets team, with a small climate team co-ordinating work at a corporate level.
Warm and Safe was started in 2016 and over the years has grown the support it offers to residents. Such a scheme brings huge benefits to the population of Wiltshire with minimal financial investment from the council. Warm and Safe’s main source of funding is the government’s Public Health Grant, which has often been supplemented by further grants such as the National Grid’s Warm Homes Fund.
The Warm and Safe caseworker at Greater Western Hospital was funded by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), and the caseworker at Salisbury District Hospital was initially funded by Wiltshire Council in a pilot project. Due to the success of the pilots, the hospital caseworkers were upscaled through money allocated from the Energy Redress Scheme. The community caseworker is funded by the Wiltshire Health and Wellbeing Board’s Better Care Fund.
The Green Homes Grant funding that’s partially supporting the HEEP amounted to £546,500. However, the council intends to invest £86 million in total from its own budget towards raising all council homes to EPC B rating, funded by the Housing Revenue Account. £36 million of the total sum covers existing costs for standard housing repairs and maintenance. The remaining £50 million is therefore additional investment required to significantly improve energy efficiency, over and above what was already funded for planned maintenance.
The financial modelling to adjust for a £50 million addition to the Housing Revenue Account’s 30 Year Business Plan was complex. Officers had to prove this was affordable. Adding significant further investment meant all other elements – rent, voids, capital and responsive maintenance, rent arrears etc – had to be reviewed. However, once the scheme was proven to be affordable, approval was smooth and straightforward.
Find the right people – Healthcare professionals are more likely to be persuaded by their peers, so it’s important to engage the right people. Specialists in respiratory disease and mental health will see clear benefits, whereas there’s less evidence for the impact of cold homes on cardiovascular conditions, for example. It’s also important to engage both senior and frontline staff. Senior staff set expectations, but frontline staff actually make the referrals.
Speak to healthcare staff in their language – Communicate clearly the specific benefits of acting on fuel poverty within the context of the healthcare sector. Make an effort to understand the clinical priorities and targets of local health services and then align your objectives to these. Use case studies to help staff broaden their ideas about which patients could benefit from referral to a fuel poverty service. They need to understand the value of the service to their patients and consider it part of their remit.
Persistence – Healthcare staff are burdened by busy schedules and have limited capacity. Expect that making first contact may take several attempts. Once contact is made, be sure to invest time in building relationships and familiarity within healthcare services, so that staff are confident about where to direct people who need support. Make the referral process quick and easy to use.
Start with rotating empty properties – There’s an average turnover of around 300 empty council homes annually in Wiltshire, so the council will begin retrofitting these properties as they become empty. Some tenanted properties will still need to be upgraded to meet the 500 per year target, but starting with empty properties will minimise the scale of disruption to residents.
Get retrofit messaging right – Few residents are well-informed about retrofit, and even those who are may be wary of intrusive changes to their homes. In Wiltshire’s experience, emphasising factors like comfort, health and warmth are more effective than arguments about environmental impact and carbon savings. Councils should make sure to promote the desirable vision of healthier, better-ventilated homes with less damp and condensation that take very little energy to heat.
Urgent need for government leadership – Even with its commitment to retrofit all council-owned properties, a further 480 homes per week would need to be retrofitted to get to net zero by 2030 for all Wiltshire homes. Greater co-ordination from government in the form of a national energy efficiency awareness campaign and stable, long-term funding is essential.
For more information, please contact Wiltshire’s Climate Team or read the twice-yearly progress reports to Cabinet .
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