Climate change and housing: a wicked issue for social policy

by Peter Matthews & Steve Rolfe

In the first of a series of guest blogs organised by the Climate Justice and Social Policy Group in the lead up to COP26, Dr Peter Matthews and Dr Steve Rolfe of the University of Stirling take stock of the entwined history of housing and social policy, before dwelling on the implications of the climate crisis for the homes we will all inhabit in 2050.

When Beveridge sought to “slay the giant” of squalor, much of the concern for social reformers was homes that were draughty and difficult to heat. The initial response of the post-war state to dealing with this issue – through demolition and rebuild – was within a context of cheap, carbon-based energy from oil, coal and natural gas. As the architectural historian Barnabas Calder has expertly examined, the big, concrete, brutalist buildings that embody the post-war welfare state were a product of cheap energy, to make the concrete and to keep them warm when they were built.

The most recent IPCC report has again highlighted the need for urgent action to tackle emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2. Our homes are recognised as the major source of emissions through energy use – an estimated 15% (or nearly 70 megatonnes equivalent of CO2) of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 came from residential properties. This is on-top of energy bills rising in 2021 in the UK due to global increases in natural gas prices, putting pressure on household expenditure. However, reflecting on 75 years of post-war, state-led housing development also highlights that in we have to consider CO2 emissions from homes in their use, but also the embedded CO2 in them as buildings.

Of course, the contribution of housing to carbon emissions is not only an issue in the UK. At a global level, the UN Environment Programme estimates that domestic energy use accounts for 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with another 10% arising from construction. Worryingly, emissions from the operation of buildings (housing and non-residential) hit nearly 10 GtCO2 in 2019, their highest ever level, whilst the rate of annual improvement in terms of energy efficiency investments and renewable energy in buildings has actually reduced in recent years.

Given some of the challenges faced, it is easy to presume this is a win-win situation from a social policy perspective. For example, reducing energy use through efficiency measures will reduce energy costs for low income consumers and emissions of greenhouse gases. However, on closer inspection, it is a classic “wicked” policy issue. In policy studies, “wicked” issues are often seen as intractable, with no particular “owner” of the problem and no obvious solutions. However, a better way of understanding wicked issues is as incredibly complex; the “start” or “end” of the problem is not immediately obvious, and as feedback loops and connections are followed, the problem grows, or its boundaries begin to blur into other policy areas leaving it unadopted or left as “someone else’s problem”. As such, it is an issue which the housing sector is only just getting fully to grips with, particularly considering the issues beyond new-build homes.

In terms of energy use in homes, it is easy for governments to continually increase the expectations of energy efficiency in new homes, to the point that they are effectively carbon neutral across their lifetimes. However, new housing stock is only ever the tiniest of proportions of our housing stock. The much bigger challenge is retrofitting and improving our centuries-old housing stock. This is made all the more challenging through the diversification of housing and its governance. For example, how can we incentivise small private landlords (who are often landlords by accident) to spend substantial sums improving a property for little direct immediate benefit to themselves? After a substantial period of austerity, which for social landlords in England involved rent caps and reduced maintenance, how can we ensure our social housing stock is brought up to the highest standards of energy efficiency?

The challenges leaseholders have faced with the cladding crisis demonstrate just some of the problems we will face in delivering improvements to properties in the owner-occupied sector, particularly for those in the lowest-value homes who will struggle to access financial products to pay for such improvements. The embodied carbon in building materials also highlights how unsustainable demolition-and-rebuild is, even with high rates of recycling construction materials.

A further immediate challenge faced by the UK is to remove our reliance on natural gas for heating and hot water. At the moment policymakers, housing providers, and local authorities are wondering whether it will be hydrogen networks, air-source heat pumps, district heating, or other technologies, or a combination of all of these, that will allow us to meet our target of ending the installation of new natural gas boilers in 2030. This is after decades of policy actively encouraging a shift from (then) higher-carbon electric heating to natural gas. Any shift in energy source will require substantial changes to infrastructure that has been in existence for up to 200 years.

These are just some of the issues we have to consider before we even begin to think about where our housing is and whether local services and employment are easily accessible by foot, bicycle or public transport. Concepts like “the 15 minute neighbourhood” are growing in popularity in the UK, but will require profound changes in how we spatially organise our cities to move away from a dependence on the car.

These are not new issues and have been recognised as challenges by housing professionals and town planners for over 40 years. However, the most recent IPCC report shows how urgent these policy changes are. As noted above, this looks like a win-win for social policy. The advantages of a shift to zero-carbon housing, if managed correctly, will accrue for those in greatest need, whether they are struggling to pay their energy bills, or struggling to access services due to transport costs.

To achieve these goals requires policy coordination beyond what is already occurring, and as in 1945 with the birth of the post-Beveridge welfare state, the state intervening into individual’s lives and market activities in a way not seen before. The state was a key actor in creating the carbon-intensive housing infrastructure we have inherited. If we are to meet the challenge raised by the IPCC’s report will require a similar level of ambition in thought and deed; not just simply switching the gas taps to hydrogen taps.

Dr Peter Matthews and Dr Steve Rolfe, University of Stirling. The authors are members of the SPA’s Housing Policy Group, which tweets @HousingSPA.

Blogs give the views of the author(s), and not of the Social Policy Association.