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Net zero tolerance

By Ian Hembrow
May 25, 2023

The House of Commons Climate Change Committee estimates that at current prices, it will cost £250 billion to fully decarbonise the UK’s housing stock by 2050. But the huge investment and work needed to do this are the easy bit, says Creative Bridge senior consultant, Ian Hembrow. Explaining and taking people with us on this journey is shaping up to be an even greater challenge.

Air heat source pump control






Take a look through the business plan of just about any registered housing provider and you’ll spot some very large capital spending numbers for the rest of this decade and beyond.

These are the sums that executives and boards have had to swallow hard and commit to improving the energy efficiency of existing homes, to equip them for a lower-carbon future and contribute to the Government’s climate change targets.

To put the Commons Committee’s estimate in context, that means spending £9 billion on this every year for the next 27 years – more than three times what we currently devote to building new, affordable homes. Or if you prefer, the £250 billion total is equivalent to about one and a half years of the National Health Service.


Housing bosses could be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous. The amounts of money this generation of leaders will be responsible for committing are unlike anything since the council housebuilding heyday of the 1950s. Back then, it was the Government doing the spending; now, the onus is on individuals to get their calculations and judgements right.

Amid all this, there’s one thing that we can predict with some confidence. If housing providers fail to explain what they’re doing to people’s homes and why, and get their customers on board with the necessary lifestyle changes, there’s a high risk that all these billions could go to waste.

To date, most initiatives aimed at achieving net zero have being largely driven by financial and technical imperatives. There’s been relatively little attention paid to what residents think about these changes or the roles they can play in making them successful.

At least a decade ago, I remember listening to a radio programme about how the world could make the transition to a low-carbon economy. It suggested that two words would make all the difference: community engagement. Nothing I’ve seen or heard since has made me think otherwise.


Come on, we’re good at this – aren’t we?

If the radio prediction was correct, housing providers should be well placed to meet this challenge. Many organisations now have ample budgets and big teams devoted to engaging and communicating with customers. So, their job is to make sure they don’t get crowded out or overridden by building and funding concerns. The move to lower-carbon living and net zero has to be about what’s right for people, not just their properties.

There’s an urgent need to capture the lessons already learned, strengthen customers’ voices and find the most effective ways to influence people’s views, choices and behaviour. Above all, residents need to feel part of what’s going on and be able to contribute in ways and words that are meaningful to them.

A London-based housing association once asked us to work with residents whose kitchens and bathrooms were being replaced in a big rolling asset management programme. The association couldn’t understand why the feedback and satisfaction scores they were getting for this work were so poor. They were spending loads of money and installing really nice fittings – why weren’t customers more appreciative and positive?

It didn’t take long to pinpoint the answer; yes, the new kitchens and bathrooms were nice, but the experience of having them fitted was hellish. Residents were faced with contractors turning up at little or no notice, sometimes being left without proper cooking, toilet or bathing facilities, and generally feeling like their homes had been invaded and lives turned upside down for two weeks, with no proper warning, explanation or attempt to compensate them for the disruption.

Determined to do better

Hopefully standards and practice have moved on, but I dread something similar happening when it comes to net zero programmes. It’ll be all too easy for the pressure to hit targets and upgrade homes to distract from the needs and interests of those who live in them. If this happens, expect widespread problems with access, fierce resistance to decarbonisation and some unpleasant surprises when households discover their new air-source heat pumps don’t work like the boilers they’re used to, or achieve the expected lower bills.

Luckily there is already some good practice about – especially the joint 2021 Residents’ voices project between Tpas and PlaceShapers and action research now underway by the Northern Housing Consortium. But this challenge is so big and so important that every housing provider needs to be at the top of its game.

I think the fundamental success factors are to recognise that:

  • Only people can make net zero happen – buildings and systems won’t do it on their own
  • Residents will need incentives, encouragement and practical help to change the way they live and use their homes
  • Communication on this topic has to work at global, national, local and individual levels – different audiences will respond to different triggers
  • We only get to spend this money once – we have an obligation to do it wisely and well.

When it comes to achieving net zero, tolerance simply won’t be good enough. People can’t be expected to just acquiesce to changes to their homes and make do with the consequences. Neither can they be commanded to use the savings from more energy-efficient homes for activities that are environmentally friendly.

The job of professionals is to explain and offer reliable guidance and support so that people actively welcome and embrace low-carbon homes and living.

Ian Hembrow FCIH is the housing and engagement lead at Creative Bridge.

To find out how I can help your organisation with communicating its net zero plans and planned works, please get in touch.