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Green Deal could be a golden opportunity for housing

Sep-23-2011 - Green Deal could put housing associations back at the heart of their communities

It is an ambitious, multibillion pound government project to improve the condition of UK housing stock, cut energy emissions, reduce poverty and fuel inequalities and create jobs in a struggling economy. So why is the social housing sector so cautious about the Green Deal?

Due to come into full force next year, the Green Deal has so far barely managed its own carbon output, already producing a forest of discussion papers but little by the way of concrete action.

The deal itself should provide a golden opportunity for the housing sector – approached carefully, it could place it at the centre of a major investment scheme in the heart of communities. It could secure the futures of the sector's players, secure new development, boost skills and employee numbers. It will improve their public image and see them recognised as leaders in sustainable business and low-carbon living.

Yet this week's live discussion on the issue, hosted by the Guardian Housing Network, revealed that those responsible for delivering the programme still have more questions than answers when it comes to their place in the national programme.

Partly, this is because so much is left unsaid. With no firm figures attached to the Green Deal, risk and cost issues have not been satisfactorily addressed. Banks and contractors that may be interested in investing in the deal will be keen to work with social housing providers, who can help them deliver the scale and cost savings they need. But to secure these investors, the cost – and potential gains – must be clear and measurable.

The issue of consent has also been fudged to date. Without new legislation which clearly prevents leaseholders or owners in large developments such as high-rise blocks or terraced streets acting as a roadblock to a scheme, economies of scale will be difficult to achieve. The National Housing Federation estimates that 3.9 million social rented homes may be left out of major retrofit and improvement projects if this loophole is not closed.

And the energy efficiency assessments that are made in advance of refit work must be accurate. The sector has warned that assessors may make irrelevant assumptions, that homes are already adequately heated and that most people do not occupy their homes during the day. In the social sector, the poorest households often under-heat their homes but are also daytime residents. The savings that Green Deal work will usher in could be vastly overestimated.

So far Green Deal pilots have failed to engage the general public and capture the minds of private homeowners. With so much left to discuss, perhaps that's no surprise. As Carl Bairstow, project manager at Yorkshire and Humberside, so colourfully described: "We will need to await the consultation docs and the 50 pieces of secondary legislation needed to enact the energy bill before final conclusions can be made."

Affinity Sutton's recent FutureFit project found that an offer of free energy improvements was taken up by just 4.8% of people. For those who took part another 23% dropped out during the works process.

The Green Deal was, however, designed to reach out to consumers as well as the social housing sector, and here's where landlords can play a key role. In a tough economic climate with all but the richest households tightening their belts, the need to cut bills and live sustainably is better understood than ever. But householders will need the reassurance of a respected, public sector partner before they agree to have this work undertaken.

Housing associations could be local catalysts for entire neighbourhood Green Deal projects. They could broker the work across all tenures, allowing the economies of scale the government aims to achieve. Yet there is no clear, co-ordinated approach to the deal from the housing sector, no hub where lessons learned from each pilot are collated. Here is something that landlords could create now, to take a real step forward towards 2012.

Other commentators have already flagged up a potential skills gap – will the construction industry be ready to shift from fitting kitchens, bathrooms and new double glazing to cutting-edge green insulation and improvements to the fabric of older buildings?

But this new green industry and its long supply chain could create 100,000 jobs within five years, by some projections. If the housing sector takes a first step, despite being forced to place its forward foot on uneven ground, it could lead to the plugging of this skills gap, creating jobs, improving homes, saving money and reducing social inequalities. It will play a key role in improving public health, by facilitating the work that could prevent winter deaths and serious illnesses, saving money for the NHS.

Get the Green Deal right and housing associations will take their place at the heart of every British community, reconnecting with a public once lost to the attractions of home ownership but now, post-economic crash, coming to understand the benefits of a mixed tenure, cohesive community.

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