Warm homes fit for the future

How everyone can come home to a warm place that doesn't pollute the planet

Great Homes Upgrade

A later version of this article was published in the fourth issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here.

When people talk about the Green New Deal or creating green jobs, it can often seem fairly abstract to someone who doesn’t follow politics. And for those who believe in the ideas behind them, it can be hard to know how to organise around something so big and how to make a difference on the ground. For many people, climate justice and the question of a Green New Deal can seem daunting or unwieldy. What is a green job? Will I lose out? My life is hard enough as it is!

For three months now I have been organising for the New Economics Foundation (NEF) on a national campaign around retrofitting homes called the Great Homes Upgrade. For NEF this is a crucial area where green jobs and a tangible Green New Deal for communities can be realised.

Upgrading our homes, also known as retrofitting’, is the process of installing new features in a building which has already been built. First, we can make housing more energy efficient through things like better insulation and double- or triple-glazed windows. Second, we can replace dirty fossil-fuel heating, like gas boilers, with clean alternatives, like heat pumps. Retrofitting in this way means that our houses aren’t heated with polluting fuels like gas, and don’t waste as much energy.

Retrofitting for me is one of those golden green policies. It’s not about taking away any kind of modern convenience in our lives. In fact, it primarily makes our lives better by making our homes warmer and safer, lowering our energy bills, creating jobs, and improving living standards. The fact it will help us lower our greenhouse gas emissions is a bonus.

We also don’t have another option. If we are to meet our climate targets and avoid devastating climate emergency, we will need to retrofit at least 19m homes by 2030. Currently our damp and leaky housing stock is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, our home energy use alone being around 20% of total UK carbon emissions. We have to get moving on this work, but currently even if we wanted to we wouldn’t have the skills, supply chains or capacity to get started.

But the scale of this project is actually a huge opportunity. If we get this right, the investment from the government needed to kickstart a Great Homes Upgrade could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and see small businesses and suppliers flourish up and down the country.

Retrofitting for me is one of those golden green policies.”

To make this work for local communities, it is important that local authorities are the engines of the retrofit transformation. Many of them have already begun work on upgrading their own housing stock, and a national scheme offers a chance for councils to stimulate their local economies as part of a post-Covid recovery. They will need money from the national government to do this. But this money would build on local authorities’ innovation and expertise. Government investment would build up skills and supply chains, driving down the price of home upgrades. But over the medium-term, the Great Homes Upgrade will need to be paid for with money from both the government and private companies. Private money can be unlocked with things like tax and regulations.

If you are a climate activist it’s likely you have taken part in a fossil-fuel divestment campaign or an action around pollution. But upgrading and future-proofing our homes remains a technocratic and fairly niche area. If we are to cut our carbon emissions fast enough this needs to change. Activists should be organising in their communities demanding that our housing is upgraded — be it through setting up retrofit taskforces with their local authorities, meeting with local further education organisations and training colleges to see what training is being set up, or helping residents work with housing associations to upgrade their homes.

NEFs Great Homes Upgrade hopes to put retrofitting on the national agenda, so everyone can live in a warm, safe home which doesn’t pollute the planet. If you care about housing, inequality and the climate crisis, come and join us!

Image: Cat Finnie

The Great Homes Upgrade

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