Fixing the North West’s home retrofit mindset
Time and time again, large-scale projects to improve the energy efficiency of our homes fall flat. There’s a recurring theme in each: a lack of public buy-in, writes Ellie Kuitunen of Hydrock.
The engineering principles of these decarbonisation projects may have been sound but they don’t progress because engagement with the public, end users, and stakeholders in local authorities has been misdirected. Not enough weight has been placed on understanding the behaviours and perspectives of these stakeholders to shape the way the opportunity is presented.
During my childhood in Finland, a country cloaked in boreal forests and midnight sun, you wouldn’t expect to find hushed evenings spent discussing nuclear waste disposal with my grandmother at the kitchen table. Yet, there we were, two generations deep, delving into the technical intricacies of radioactive decay, not because she was a nuclear physicist, but because information flowed freely and was clear and accessible, empowering everyone to engage in matters that had significance to the community.
It’s an experience that has stayed with me. Being informed makes you see things differently.
The way we present the case for decarbonisation and retrofit, both upstream to government and downstream to individual residents, is in need of a mindset change to reflect the significance of the agenda.
It’s well-documented that our homes are poorly insulated. Homes across Manchester produce more than a quarter of our city’s emissions — similar levels to transport. Around a third of all housing across Greater Manchester fails to meet the minimum standard of energy efficiency and requires retrofitting.
To overcome this challenge, a structured approach is needed to address energy waste, reduce bills, and improve living conditions. Resources are needed to ensure residents are clear and informed on the issue, that they understand how to access skills and funding, and that we back those people with a delivery mechanism that can operate efficiently at scale.
I’m not denying that retrofit programmes and information don’t exist from government, but it’s the structure, resource, and governance that we’re woefully lacking.
On a regional level in Northern England, let’s look at a comparative infrastructure programme that’s driving change. I was fortunate in my career to work on the Transpennine Route Upgrade. Not without its own challenges, this is a multi-billion-pound programme of rail enhancements to improve the journey experience of travellers.
I observed that TRU has hundreds, or even thousands, of people working on the programme, and there’s strict governance, structure, and reporting as the programme progresses. Funding is released at each milestone, delivery teams have the resources they need, and they integrate best practice throughout in terms of social value. This is a big project, and it’s recognised and resourced as such.
Yet, a home retrofit programme has no such framework wrapped around it. It’s seemingly not perceived by government as a complex and transformational infrastructure improvement programme, capable of adding billions of pounds to our economy. We won’t truly address our most energy inefficient infrastructure — our homes — until it is.
Social housing providers are arguably a catalyst for change by bringing greater focus on a macro-level to retrofit. There’s currently funding available from the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund for energy efficiency improvements to social housing, and more funding has recently been announced.
Benefitting from that funding locally, there are 18 social housing providers across the Greater Manchester Combined Authority with wave 2.1 SHDF funding, accounting for more than 5,000 homes. It’s been a great opportunity to create new green jobs in the area and upskill the existing workforce to tackle the home retrofit programme, but it’s always against a backdrop that funding might dry up. If funding ceases, or there’s a gap or a reduction in available funding, all those skills — and repeated experiences — may be lost as the resource base moves on elsewhere.
Amidst all our clever engineering solutions for tackling climate change, I’ve come to realise that understanding people’s behaviours is just as important to guiding how we should respond and structure our delivery approach.
In 2023, I completed a Masters in Behaviour Change which included a research study into the attitudes towards home retrofit of a cross-section of residents in Greater Manchester and the opportunity for funding retrofit at scale.
Considering there’s an estimated 880,000 homes across Greater Manchester that need retrofitting by 2038, the opportunity for ‘net zero neighbourhoods’ is something I outlined within that study.
This would require a substantial number of homes and residents to sign up. There would have to be no upfront cost to the homeowner for retrofit, with funding provided by other stakeholders. A ‘comfort charge’ would be paid by the homeowner on an ongoing basis.
It’s a model for large-scale retrofit, tackling the issue at pace, with funding made available for other neighbourhood improvements. This could involve increasing the number of green spaces in the area, installing shared energy infrastructure such as solar panels, or improving safety through better lighting; the exact measures would be selected by the community.
The study investigated attitudes towards retrofit and homeowners’ willingness to sign up to a long-term financial contract as part of such a scheme. The benefits of retrofit were clearly understood and 94% of respondents said access to funding would make it more likely that they would retrofit their home.
However, just 15% said they currently had access to the required funding, and only 32% said they had access to advice and help on retrofit, which proves that, unlike with my late grandmother in Finland, information and knowledge on important subjects is not cutting through the noise.
The research also confirmed that better options for funding are needed as 41% said they were willing to sign up to a long-term contract to finance their home retrofit, which is encouraging but nowhere near definitive enough.
For me, the research is further evidence that we need better education, deeper engagement, smarter financing, and an acceptance that this is an infrastructure project of national importance that requires long-term commitment.
- Ellie Kuitunen is principal energy and carbon consultant in Hydrock’s Manchester office