Three years ago made a - which we were involved in - that set the challenge of creating a new vision for tackling the desperately needed retrofit of homes in the UK. In three years we have gone from demanding a vision for housing to having no vision or plan at all. The government is suffering from what The Economist calls Brexit Constipation.
At the same time there is more innovation in the world of housing, energy and retrofit than ever before.
This presents us with a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs and the housing sector to create the vision themselves.
It’s become a modern management mantra that we should embrace chaos. But what about it’s more polite, genteel cousin – randomness? The future that we will all inhabit is more often the result of random connections than it is the linear chronology. and certainly the much-trumped chaos.
I was reminded of this as I sat down the other night and reacquainted myself with the seminal 1978 television series ‘Connections’ written and presented by James Burke, which set out to give an ‘alternative view of change’.
But what you ask, has this got to with housing? To paraphrase James Burke - bear with me, we will come to this shortly. In the meantime, we need to do a little more scene setting.
Back in the day - when I had a real job in social housing - the glamorous part of the sector was new homes. It was seen as commercial, innovative and the guys (and it usually was guys then) were a bit more hip and happening. They had a thing going on. They drove BMWs! They had expense accounts! They met contractors that other people had heard of! OK, so now the BMW is as hip as a Ford and expense accounts aren't remotely Madmen, but with the new push in to development it is still seen as the more glamorous bit of the sector.
But we are seeing a radical shift in housing that has been long overdue. A shift that is seeing asset management and stock maintenance now as the area where new and exciting stuff is happening. This begs the question, is maintenance the new innovator?
In a period of radical change in social housing with some, including Lord Kerslake, arguing we could see its elimination, it’s more important than ever to raise our sights to the horizon to look at other changes that could see social housing change for the better and forever.
At a recent session of social housing providers, I was reminded of one of the reasons I have loved working in the sector – its ability to respond positively to changes in the economic, political and regulatory environment. Everyone in the room saw the issues, but was determined to turn adversity to its advantage and create new opportunities for the sector.
While there is also a sense that these things are being done to the sector – there is a whole world of change outside of this that social housing could embrace and begin to take charge of its own destiny. Can the sector harness it’s built-in optimism and desire to challenge the status quo to once again show what it’s capable of? The changes are coming – it’s now up to the sector to decide what to do with them. So what are the changes that are coming? We outline below some of the ones we believe could have the biggest potential in the sector.
Why do people in the UK still struggle to afford energy and why are we still failing to eradicate fuel poverty after so many years? Despite numerous targets, programmes and action plans, and even an attempt to redefine it, we seem no closer to its solution than we have ever been. I went to a recent workshop (the organisers shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) to talk about action on fuel poverty. Of course there were lots of people there that were only too familiar (I count myself as one of them), but that was also an indication of a wider problem with how we are approaching fuel poverty in the UK. We have not come up with any new ideas to tackling fuel poverty - despite it not going away and despite many of its causes and solutions radically changing.
Housing in the UK hasn't fundamentally changed in over 100 years. Give or take a few experiments with off-site manufacture and of course bespoke architect designed homes, they are pretty much the same as they have always been. What is changing radically is the landscape around them. Whether that is in Information Technology, the way we work and the way we live, this change has been accelerating over the last few years and we are on the cusp of another major step change – this time in energy.
And we are seeing this changing landscape coming together with a piece of technology that has been around in our homes for over 30 years. It has often been seen as a poor choice that comes at a high cost and delivers low performance, but it could now form a key part of delivering an entirely new way of managing our homes.
Has the time come for us to re-evaluate electric heating? Is it time for the bete noire of home tech to come out of the dark?
We have seen heat networks become ever more popular over the last few years, particularly in social and market rent housing and we did it because it was seen as a good alternative to individual heating systems and a ‘good thing’. But more recently there is growing evidence that heat networks are not delivering on their efficiency promise. Is that about to change in 2016 and will there be a new approach and a new realism that means we can at last build and manage heat networks that create good value, reliable and low carbon heat for homes?
Will we remember the autumn statement of 2015 as the starting point for something new, and maybe if we say it quietly enough, something radical for social housing? Ignoring the changes on benefits for the under 35’s for a moment, the absence of bad news or even just further policy meddling in social housing took many of us by surprise, given what has happened over the last year or so.
At the very least many hope that the autumn statement heralds a period of stability. We didn't see the tax credit reversal being paid for by further attacks on social housing, nor the ending of the energy supplier obligation and in a we never-dared-hoped-for moment the renewable heat incentive survived and there was even new – proper new – money for communal heating.