The UK has the oldest and draughtiest housing stock in Europe and that means higher energy bills and a higher cost to the climate. A quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions can be attributed to residential properties so decarbonising housing is key to the race to reach net zero.
But progress so far has been slow. The Climate Action Tracker says the UK is “significantly off-track” in both uptake of low-carbon heating and energy efficiency measures.
Despite this, Rishi Sunak recently rowed back on some of the UK’s strategies to hit net zero, including scrapping plans to stop the sale of gas boilers and energy efficiency targets for private landlords.
Perhaps he could look to John Christophers to put him on the right path.
Architect Christophers built the UK’s first zero-carbon house in Birmingham suburb Balsall Heath back in 2009. The eco-home slashed energy usage by 86% with insulation increased by up to 16 times long before the current state of the world which made retrofitting homes urgent.
But Christophers realised it wasn’t just good enough for one home to be ultra-green – the whole neighbourhood needs help to carry out the potentially costly work needed to slash carbon emissions.
So he and his wife Jo Hindley launched Retrofit Balsall Heath in the summer of 2022 alongside a small team of volunteers. That meant going door-to-door across the 4,900 homes in the Birmingham suburb to ask people if they wanted solar panels, insulation and other measures to make their homes more energy efficient.
The scale of the grassroots, people-powered scheme is impressive: 1,400 households have signed up to have work done and, so far, 649 homes have been retrofitted. The cost to each household for this work? Absolutely nothing.
That’s because the group, working with crisis-hit Birmingham City Council, tapped into £6.5m Local Authority Delivery phase three government funding to take the financial burden off households.
The Big Issue has travelled to the West Midlands to meet the people at the heart of Retrofit Balsall Heath and that means jumping on a bike and cycling through the streets with Christophers as our guide. We’re struggling to keep up.
“We can turn all these things around with a retrofit scheme,” says Christophers. “It’s about creating local jobs, local skills training for young people because there’s so much work to be done. We want to turbo power the green agenda, but not on a sort of national scale, but as a local micro-economy scale.”
It’s clear that Christophers’ charisma and love for the area have played a big part in mobilising the community.
As we pedal through the rain on small wheel bicycles – designed by Alex Moulton in the Sixties, Christophers is keen to point out – the architect cheerily greets people and points out local trivia, including Balsall Heath’s claim to fame as part of the famous Balti Triangle – home of the balti curry.
The Big Issue’s first stop is the home of Anji Page. The homelessness outreach worker has been living in her terraced home for 26 years with the Victorian building harking back to 1886.
Last winter Page relied on an open fire in the living room to keep warm because of a broken boiler that took months to fix and she also had to contend with the draught from a broken window in her bedroom that was stuck open permanently.
“My partner stayed here once in November and said I’m never staying here again,” says Page. “I was kind of used to it and I liked having the breeze but there were times when it was freezing.”
Her involvement in Retrofit Balsall Heath meant she was able to have all her windows replaced alongside a new front door, loft insulation and resized doors as well as extractor fans in the kitchen to insulate and ventilate the home.
It was all paid for through the scheme.
“It’s amazing,” Page tells The Big Issue. “When I had work done initially I had to remortgage. The house had no heating and no double-glazing so that was a big job that I had done all at one time.
“But this has made such a difference. It was always a house that I was a bit embarrassed by because it was a bit scruffy and rundown. Now I still smile when I come in it.”
The next stop is to Balsall Heath City Farm to visit Hywel Williams. Williams runs the farm, looking after 50 animals in the small patch of green space surrounded by homes. He even brings in the sheep and goats indoors while speaking to The Big Issue.
Williams had solar panels fitted on his home for free.
“It’s probably not something we would have done off our own back,” he says. “It’s made us think about our energy consumption, which is useful to think about. We now save things like doing loads of washing for sunny days and things like that. Make hay while the sun shines as they say.”
Williams’ involvement in Retrofit Balsall Heath also gave him a fresh perspective on fuel poverty.
As energy bills soared last winter, Christophers and other residents marched through Balsall Heath to demand action as part of their Warm this Winter campaign. Williams was among them.
“Having a local campaign like this has really drawn our attention to the issues of the ageing Victorian houses that we’ve got,” says Williams.
A short cycle brings us to Melrose Avenue, a cul-de-sac of 26 homes which you could make a case for being the country’s Green Street. Or at least Retrofit Road. Almost all of the homes are down for being retrofitted as part of the scheme.
There are no prizes for guessing what semi-retired Jan Burley values most from the work on her home.
“I always talk about the solar panels because I think they are the best. I absolutely love them, I’m telling everybody they’re so fantastic,” she tells The Big Issue.
“I’ve done four loads of washing with the sun and then dried it outside and I keep this smart meter and you see even now while it’s a miserable day, it’s using no electricity.
“I’m very aware of the climate problems and do my best anyway to reduce my usage, not just for money but for my grandchildren.”
People power has been key to Retrofit Balsall Heath with Christophers acting as the driving force and the glue behind the scheme.
He and Hindley hosted several meetings with people in the area to help them fill out the necessary forms to sign up for work and to keep them updated on progress.
“If we can get everyone together on the whole street, we can explain the buzz around it rather than something dropping on the doormat and somebody signing up and it’s just one house,” says Christophers.
“If you get the whole road doing it then the efficiencies for the contractors are great. The understanding of the people in the homes is great.”
Both Williams and Burley agree. “It’s hard for an individual to achieve what a group of people can do together,” says Williams.
Burley adds: “It was the fact that it got everybody talking about it and interested in it which made sure I followed it through rather than tossing it away.
“I’d like to think I would do it without the community effort but it was a sense of community that got me going.”
Burley’s neighbour Khanassar Khan, 69, also had solar panels fitted, which he described as “very good”. For the retired carpet salesman, the community aspect was just as important: “I try my best with everyone, and John found out. He is helping and caring about the community so he contacted me and we made a friendship from there.”
Now Christophers is trying to turn what started in Retrofit Balsall Heath into a UK-wide movement. Last year Christophers held a small festival in Balsall Heath to encourage people to take energy efficiency seriously at home.
This year the Retrofit Reimagined Festival has grown in scale. Starting in Balsall Heath in September, events are being held in Bristol, London and Glasgow as well as Machynlleth in Wales until November in the push to decarbonise the country’s housing stock.
“What I hope people will get is the value that can be added to this process by doing it as a community-led neighbourhood-based thing is huge,” he says. “There are benefits that we’re all beginning to recognise, for health and jobs and everything to do with retrofit.
“That’s why we’re trying to pioneer and advocate with the Retrofit Reimagined Festival.”
The movement comes as Sunak has watered down efforts to reach net-zero targets. Axing energy efficiency targets for private landlords, in particular, means the cost of bringing in some of these measures is more likely to fall on poorer private rented tenants.
Sunak argued the changes were to “bring people along” rather than disenfranchise them when the short-term cost of living crisis is pushing the long-term climate crisis down the household spending pecking order.
Critics argued, Christophers among them, that moves like this mean the all-important net zero goals will not be reached by 2050.
“We’re not content. We’ve got 4,900 homes in Balsall Heath. What we’re really keen on is that no one is left behind,” he says.
“The best energy is the energy you don’t need to use at all.”
If the government isn’t going to do what’s necessary to protect us from the climate crisis, perhaps Christophers and his hardy team of volunteers have the blueprint for action to begin at home.
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