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Let’s take action and act together – the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury

In recent years, many policy-makers have recognised that people need to be put at the heart of decision-making on long-term challenges like social care and climate change. At local, regional and national level, citizens’ juries and assemblies have been instigated to enable ordinary citizens to deliberate and reach conclusions together. Here in the North of England, a first-of-its-kind Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury has recently made 19 recommendations to the social housing sector. So why was a Jury needed, what has the process involved, and what have tenants recommended?

A quarter of the North’s carbon emissions come from our existing homes. If we’re to meet the challenge of net zero, that needs to change. That means upgrading homes to make them as energy efficient as possible and transitioning home heating to renewable sources. It’s a huge challenge – we estimate over 4million homes across the North will need energy efficiency works by 2035.

That’s 4million homes, personal spaces, that will require change: the prospect of potentially disruptive works that might mean clearing your loft, having scaffolding around your house, and needing to redecorate afterwards. However considerate the tradespeople are, that’s a prospect most of us wouldn’t relish.

The Northern Housing Consortium’s members – councils, housing associations and ALMOs across the North – told us that the fact that ‘these are people’s homes’ was top of their minds when considering retrofit – they saw meeting the challenge of net zero as much as a tenant engagement issue as an asset management issue.

So we came to the conclusion that tackling climate change in the North’s homes and neighbourhoods needed to start by listening to the people who live in those homes and neighbourhoods – and the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury was born.

Five of our members – First Choice Homes Oldham, Karbon Homes, Salix Homes, Thirteen and Yorkshire Housing – worked with the NHC to bring deliberative democracy to the social housing sector. Shared Future CIC brought their extensive experience of citizens juries and assemblies, and we established an expert Oversight Panel to ensure the independence and integrity of the process.

7,500 tenants across the North were invited to get involved, and from the expressions of interest received, a Jury of 30 tenants was selected, using random stratified selection to ensure they reflected the diversity of the population of tenants across the North, and a range of attitudes to climate change.

The Jury met for 30 hours over the Summer, taking evidence from over 20 expert commentators, to answer the question set for them by the Oversight Panel – ‘How can tenants, social housing providers and others work together to tackle climate change in our homes and neighbourhoods?’  Commentators included academics, technical experts, fellow tenants, housing association representatives and a Government minister.

This was an intensive process. The Jury gave up their time to go on this journey together, and reflected that they had:

Brought together different levels of knowledge, experience and different opinions to create shared understanding and shared solutions in the form of recommendations that we have all worked hard to create and agree upon’.

The recommendations are comprehensive, and cover four themes:

  • Recommendations on retrofit technology
  • Recommendations on costs and managing disruptions to tenants
  • Education, raising awareness, communications and housing association collaboration
  • Tackling climate change in our neighbourhoods.

On technology, tenants concluded that landlords needed to take into account the urgency of climate change: ‘We are running out of time’. The jury wanted landlords to speed things up, whilst keeping an open mind about how technology might develop in future. The quality of installation was very important, and tenants wanted to see the best quality of technology used, with landlords working to ‘optimum standards’, and independent inspection of completed work. Residents recognised that ‘new skills are needed’ and suggested that housing associations should be proactive and look to train and employ their own skilled workforce.

Throughout the Jury’s deliberations, costs were a real concern. Tenants wanted assurances that the huge cost of retrofit wouldn’t push rents up; were keen to ensure that retrofit works delivered on the promise of lower energy bills, and that residents weren’t left footing bills for redecoration. They made practical suggestions – for example, the Jury was concerned that residents might experience fuel poverty as they adjusted to the most efficiency way to use new heating technologies and suggested a pot of money that could help people who found themselves in this situation.

Disruption was a real worry, and the Jury made practical suggestions to minimise this, calling for clear and timely information from their landlords, with named regular contacts who could work with them throughout the process. Tenants asked for clarity about the input that would be required from them – stressing that they can’t take time off work without notice: ‘Full disclosure from both sides, on all matters, will help efficiency, lessen delays and be most cost-effective.’

It was clear that Jurors had learnt lots through the process, and they were keen that awareness was raised with everyone in their communities – so that residents had ‘the information to be able to make their own decisions’. The Jury stressed the importance of good communication, sharing progress and being open about delays and problems. They wanted to see housing associations working together and with councils and other agencies.

Jurors were clear that tackling climate change didn’t end at the front door and made a series of recommendations around the use of green spaces, highlighting the potential for growing food, for collaborating with local businesses like supermarkets; and for showcasing action taken by tenants

This was a hugely inspiring process – and it’s difficult to summarise the breadth of insights and wisdom that the Jury process elicited. Read the Jury’s recommendations, and take the Jury’s advice: ‘Go forward with an open mind, listen to what we have to say and above all – let’s take action and act together’.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Brian Robson</span></strong>
Brian Robson

Brian is the Executive Director (Policy and Public Affairs), Northern Housing Consortium.

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The Great Tory Planning Power Grab

Recent planning reforms by this government are nothing else than a power grab, and risk future housing and our response to the climate emergencywrites Councillor Johnson Situ.

It takes something special to unite councils (of all political colours), planning bodies and campaigners in almost uniform condemnation. In recent weeks, MHCLG has reached that feat with a string of announcements and reforms to planning, which as ill-judged as they are impractical. Robert Jenrick has given these proposals lofty names such as ‘Planning for the Future’ or ‘Right to Regenerate’ but scratch beneath the surfaceand this is nothing more than a power grab from a national government intent on deregulating planning at the cost of genuinely affordable homes being built and our ability to respond to the Climate Emergency.   

Much has been written about the impact of another top-down reform to the planning system. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the planning system does need reform. Secondly, a decade of cuts to local government has meant that the planning head count has significantly decreased over the years. Yet we must recognise the plan making process can be made far more nimble and better at including communities from the onset if planning departments are adequately resourced.

However, a recent report from the LGA which showed that more than a million homes granted planning permission in the past decade still had not yet been built highlights a wider issue that needs resolving.

Equally, our vision for building high quality, genuinely affordable housing must be coupled with our commitment to tackle the climate emergency – which includes driving up environmental standards in residential homes. That ambition is dependent upon a framework that empowers local authorities to make planning decisions that promote positive environmental and public health outcomes. However, proceeding with the recent announcement risks degrading local authorities’ ability to promote high quality, sustainable housing through the planning system. 

So, if the government were interested in planning reforms that supported councils to meet the housing crisis and respond to the climate emergency, here are some things they could announce, and if not, policies the next Labour government should introduce instead:

A build out clause in granted permissions

The Government’s new Right to Regenerate proposals, which seem to amount to privatising public land by stealth, are deeply flawed. Many councils such as Southwark have ambitious council homes building programmes and are using land to build council homes. It is also silent on land banking from developers. Surely, any reforms to planning should enable planning authorities to refuse planning applications based on record of building out permissions?  

Enable plan making that is responsive to the local community and changing environment

It is a well-known fact that the current plan making process takes too long, and a running joke that by the time most plans are completed they are up for renewal again. This is particularly concerning for our response to the Climate Emergency and enabling councils to develop the right policies to encourage carbon saving technology at the right time. In recent years we have seen significant strides made in the renewable energy technology and communities have come together to develop co-operative energy organisations, all of which needs a national planning framework that actively supports it.

A report by The Committee on Climate Change in February 2019 calculated that if the current 27,000-50,000 homes built in timber frame in recent years increased to 270,000 annually, this would absorb and store three million tonnes of carbon. Now this will not be the answer to meet the entire housing need, but creating a national planning framework that enabled local authorities to strengthen plans to respond to modern methods of construction, should be a priority.

Local Authorities are ready to go further and in recent times many have already strengthen their requirement for environmentally friendly energy, and increasingly car-free developments are a fixture in more local plans. Here in Southwark, we have committed to a net zero development across our key masterplan area by 2030.

Development in the area will be car free and the promotion of walking and cycling as well as electric buses, taxis and commercial vehicles will help tackle air and noise pollution.  We are developing a District Heat Network linking new developments to the South East London Combined heat and Power plant, which will deliver both significant savings in C02 emissions and cheaper energy costs for residents. This will complement a range of low carbon energy options on new build homes across the masterplan area

A spatial planning system, which gives local authorities the ability to have a more formalised say in transport infrastructure

One of the key recommendations from Labour’s Planning Commission was the need for a spatial plan which provided a national framework but also placed a formal role on the local authority. The message of addressing regional inequality will be ignored if local communities get no say on whether their area has better transport infrastructure, and that applies for inner cities as well as northern towns and coastal areas. Whatever your view is on Heathrow’s third runway, it is absurd that the local authority had no formal input within the decision making, when local residents will have to live with the impact on air pollution and traffic in the area.

In short, if this government were serious about meeting the housing crisis and responding to the climate emergency, it would strengthen the role of local authorities within its most recent proposals. Instead it has continued with a decade-long vision to deregulate planning. The stakes are high, and we will need to be bold to build the social and genuinely affordable housing the country needs, as well as responding to the climate emergency. Reheated policies from the 80’s will not work and that is why Southwark Labour, like many Labour authorities, will be fighting these new proposals and campaigning tirelessly to elect a Labour government.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Johnson Situ</span></strong>
Johnson Situ

Johnson is the Labour Councillor for Peckham Ward (Southwark) and Cabinet Member for Climate Emergency, Planning and Transport