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July 11, 2023
This opening keynote of the three-day event set the scene to ask how can local authorities align their future development plans with the UN’s sustainability pillars to create adequate and affordable housing?
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 building on the principle of leaving no one behind. It is a holistic approach for sustainable development for all and looks beyond climate tunnel vision to consider quality education, decent work, and reduced inequalities.
Eamonn Boylan, Chief Executive at Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), focused on how much housing impacts people’s health and said that good health comes from people having access to a decent home. He said that the SDGs help the GMCA to think about how their priorities and activities impact the goals and that they’re looking at a locality-based prevention focused health and wellbeing strategy.
Matthew Bennett from Inner Circle Consulting and the London Borough of Lambeth commented that some goals are more relevant than others but might crop up in interesting places, like life under water might not seem relevant to housing until housing development is stalled due to water neutrality issues. He suggested using them as a framework, but as they are not all always relevant, don't try to shoehorn them in.
Amiera Sawas from Climate Outreach said we are facing extreme heat and our infrastructure can’t cope - this will be the biggest climate change killer. Don’t lock into overly structured very long-term plans – we don’t have time. We need localised lenses and actions, while having support from national government to make the changes that need to happen.
Eammon concluded with an important point, that policy frameworks and local plans need to reflect the UN global goals as a priority.
My view is that the SDGs are an internationally acknowledged blueprint for sustainable living, and I'm surprised more people still don't know what they are or have used them to map out their own impacts. It was great to hear tangible examples of the SDGs in action during the session, but I hope that they more urgently start to align with a systems thinking approach to sustainable development.
Tenant engagement and communication is such a hot topic right now and something that is hugely important for Energiesprong projects, so I was very interested to attend this session to hear more about how landlords can listen and act on concerns and complaints.
Jenny Osbourne, Chief Executive at Tpas, highlighted that the answer lies in the CULTURE – how is it expressed and how is it seen – does it reflect that residents’ concerns will be listened to? Do the leaders GENUINELY and enthusiastically believe that they have a right to be heard and be acted upon? Are we listening or are we telling? She said it’s not about one person or one team – it is about the whole organisation’s culture and leadership.
Carmen Simpson, Chair of Phoenix Community Housing, raised the importance of ensuring that residents have a voice on the board of Housing Associations. At Phoenix their headquarters is a hub called Green Man where the Chief Executive, board members, staff, and residents can meet to discuss their housing needs. The majority of the board members are residents so resident engagement is clearly easier and there are fewer barriers.
It was really interesting and a personal highlight of the whole conference to hear from Kwajo Tweneboa, a housing campaigner who has lived in social housing most of his life. He raised the issue that there is a lot of stigma and spoke very passionately about his own experience of living in housing that was deemed not fit for animals to live in; damp, poor security, rodents, sewage in his home – truly terrible conditions.
He was sick and tired of being ignored so went to the press. ITV News got involved with an under-cover story as more and more people reached out to him about terrible conditions and being ignored.
Kwajo talked about the impact that poor quality housing can have on people’s health and wellbeing to the point where some have taken their own lives. It is not enough to put nice words on the website while tenants are living in terrible conditions. We need to move towards a realisation that we are dealing with people’s lives. We need housing providers to raise these issues with government. He concluded that it costs nothing to change accountability and culture!
Over on the PfH (Procurement for Housing) Live stage I was interested to attend this panel discussion – a topic close to my heart and a key element in the Energiesprong approach to retrofitting.
We heard from Katie Gilmartin, Head of business development & innovation at Platform Housing Group. She said that the traditional trusted delivery partners who we have existing relationships with are the ones we want to be working in partnership with to adopt MMC because we can all learn together. There is still a lot to navigate when delivering MMC to site, describing it as a precision product in a muddy field of foundations.
She also said that it doesn’t need to be binary – why use MMC not trad, why use trad not MMC – it must be both as we need the interface between site and factory.
Stuart Hensby from Abri Group talked about green mortgages and that rates are marginal; therefore we need really strong products that show a significant benefit and more support around mortgageable products for MMC approaches.
The key themes that emerged from this discussion were:
Building a compelling base of evidence is vital so that we can demonstrate the benefits.
Andy Burnham provided the second keynote on the first day of the event to provide his views on what the UK housing sector should focus on.
He talked about the need to prioritise the importance of everyone having a decent home, similar to the ‘Housing First’ policy in Finland who have made it their mission to provide everyone with a good home.
“Is it affordable?” he asked. The cost of not doing it would be higher he said. Failure to provide this would cost society in MANY other ways – impacting health and education. A good safe and secure home should be a human right.
Having good housing in the first place is true prevention. We need a systemic approach to raising housing standards. He said that many houses don’t currently meet basic standards which damages people’s health and drags down the communities around them. Housing allowance rates do not keep pace with rising rents and often people are forced into homelessness and temporary accommodation.
Rewiring of the systems making it work better for everyone – tenant, landlords and communities. Based on the model of good employment charter, Andy proposed a Good Landlord Charter to act as a visible accreditation of those who are trying to do the right thing. The expectation is that social housing landlords will register to this charter to seek wide sector improvements, although there is scepticism that many private landlords won’t sign up.
New legislation to tackle damp and mould such as Awaab’s Law is a vital bill to get serious about quality housing. This new Law and the wider home retrofit and new homes programmes together could provide a credible plan to solve the housing crisis!
He concluded that we need to start talking about housing as an essential human right. A good home provides the essential foundation that people need. We need a collaborative approach where tenants have power and not only the landlords.
There was standing room only at the Unlock Net Zero stage for this session (and from what I understand, was the same for most sessions)! The focus of the discussion was embodied carbon.
It has been left to companies to adopt and drive carbon neutral homes via embodied carbon – the carbon incurred via the design, construction, and demolition/disassembly phases of a building. The current approach of having no coherent policies isn’t a great way to adopt best practices to reduce carbon emissions.
Audience members raised an important point that there is a lack of education for tenants and homeowners about not only the benefits of a carbon neutral home but also how to live in them if they are lucky enough to have access to one. It is important to accept that a home with MVHR or air source heat pumps are lived in slightly differently to homes without these measures.
There were a few questions and comments around exploring hydrogen to decarbonise homes, but my personal view is that hydrogen for homes is a distraction. We need to use the limited green hydrogen for those industries that need to use gas. We can and should switch to electric solutions for housing, following the advice from experts like Jan Rosenow who have cited numerous studies and evidence that show hydrogen for homes does not bring the carbon reduction we desire instead of pandering to those that seek to continue our reliance on fossil fuels.
It was a fantastic event with a huge amount to see and do. In addition to the talks above, Lisa Nandy (Shadow secretary of state, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) talked a lot of sense about the state of housing in the UK and how Labour is planning to reform the planning system and increase rates of home ownership, stating: “We are determined to rebuild. It isn’t just the right thing to do, it is the only thing to do.”
Additionally, Kate Watson from Turner & Townsend provided an excellent breakdown of what is needed to retrofit and how to manage risks and avoid unintended consequences.
In summary, my top observations from the conference are that there were significantly more references to health in housing, embodied carbon, and retrofit than previous years. And while the net zero challenge has been rising up the agenda for a few years, it is now rightly mentioned in almost every session and exhibitors’ brochure. In some sessions, speakers also acknowledged that we need to start adapting to expected climate impacts such as overheating.
But the highlight for me was the session on how to engage with tenants and hearing Kwajo Tweneboa speak!