Opinion

The climate emergency is here: We must make our housing policy greener too

Greenhouse gas emissions for housing contribute 22 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint. It's time our housing policy recognised this, says Anna Johnston from the Women's Budget Group.

It isn’t just the latest IPCC report that tells us the climate emergency is here. Fires, floods and the many other recent instances of dramatic weather have shown its very real impact in the UK and around the world.  The conversation now turns to limiting emissions, to cars and fossil fuels and wide-reaching policy changes. But the role of housing plays a central part in rising temperatures too. 

Currently, greenhouse gas emissions for housing contribute 22 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint; 15 per cent from heating and hot water. The construction industry as a whole also contributes 49 per cent of carbon emissions.

Retrofitting existing housing stock to make it more environmentally friendly and implementing the dozens of solutions proposed by the Green Building Council will play a vital part in meeting the UK’s climate change targets. Yet current retrofit programmes are slow, with uneven take up, unclear communication to home occupants and long and costly supply chains.

Whilst improving retrofit and green building are important, they do little to help access to housing, its high cost, and the poor quality of a lot of our housing stock. Eight million people are currently estimated to be in housing need in England, 3.4 million live in overcrowded conditions. At the same time  over 648,000 homes sit empty, 225,000 of which are long-term empty—a number growing annually, often in some of the most deprived areas. Radical transformation of the housing sector is needed if we are to properly address the dual crises of climate and inequality.

Housing is unaffordable for women in every region in England, due to their lower average income compared to men. So, it is no wonder that women make up 60 per cent of housing benefit claimants and 67 per cent of statutory homeless people. Women from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black African backgrounds have particularly low earnings, and lone mothers are more likely than couples with children to be in low-income households, meaning it is more difficult to afford often high private rental costs.

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Around 100,000 ‘affordable’ homes would be required, almost a third of a total 344,000 new homes per year, to meet estimates of housing need in the UK.  Yet, there is much evidence to suggest that increasing housing need doesn’t just fall on the lack of supply but the way planning and policy prioritises housing as a financial asset rather than a right or service.

To reframe housing as a service, government policy needs to prioritise significant regulation of the housing market and private rental sector, while improving support for self-building schemes (see OpHouse in York). More land should be bought under the control of local councils and collective community ownership, such as through community land trusts, housing cooperatives, and co-housing projects, for example Granby Four Streets CLT in Liverpool, Sanford Housing Cooperative in London and LILAC in Leeds. There also needs to be greater investment in improving and increasing social housing stock. Combined, these changes would reimagine housing as in the service of local need, rather than for private financial gain.

Transforming housing for people and planet must also consider quality and design, as well as quantity. Poor insulation, old fittings and unaffordable heating costs have been connected to both poor health and high carbon emissions. The Energy Company Obligation, a government scheme to tackle fuel poverty is paid for through energy bills, meaning the cost burden is higher for those on lower incomes. It is also underfunded and doesn’t adequately target fuel-poor homes. Unfortunately, those most vulnerable to the physical and mental harm caused by poorly insulated and damp homes tend to be tenants that spend the most time at home: disabled people, older people, children and caregivers, the majority of which are women. Only 7 per cent of current housing in the UK offers basic accessibility features for disabled people, leaving large numbers living in poor conditions, impacting their physical and mental health, as well as social life and employment.

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Adequate housing that looks after the planet and the wellbeing of its residents requires design and retrofit that meet the needs of diverse households often with several generations, carers and those of all ages receiving care.

People know best what they need from a space. So, it’s vital that everyone in a community is given the opportunity to be involved in creating carbon-reduction plans for existing housing, as well as the design and location of new builds. This should also be the case for temporary accommodation, shelters and refuges where safety, privacy and control over a space are a concern.

Housing and retrofit should also be designed to reduce building labour, money and materials across the life of the building. Greater local control over housing retrofit, design, build and materials provides opportunities to use local construction materials, as called for by the UK Green Building Council. It also makes it easier for housing materials to be part of a circular economy, such as PLACE/Ladywell in Lewisham, London, a temporary housing and community/office space which can be fully broken down and moved. Reducing the footprint of supply chains crucially limits reliance on exploiting the resources of the Global South.

Place-based control over new builds would also enable housing location to meet the needs of communities, enabling compact and connected communities less reliant on cars, promoting walking, cycling and public transport. It would give the opportunity for more communal and public green spaces, and the protection of local wildlife by avoiding expansion onto rural and green belt areas.

If structural change to address the climate emergency is to be truly transformative, it cannot replicate current inequalities, injustices and power structures. Housing as a central part of a Green New Deal must therefore address issues of equality alongside the currently accepted technical green building and retrofit strategies, to create a built environment that meets the needs of both people and planet.

Read more in a new policy paper released from the Women’s Budget Group ‘Reimagining Housing Supply and Design . This paper is part of a collaboration between the Women’s Budget Group and Women’s Environmental Network that will add an intersectional gendered lens to the Green New Deal. Find out more about the project here.

Anna Johnston is a Research and Policy Officer at the Women’s Budget Group.

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