Saving the planet in Brighton one draughty home at a time

A line of 1950s homes in Brighton
Retrofitting older homes can provide great energy-saving gains. Photo credit:“Moulsecoomb, Brighton.” by Nicobobinus is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

As storms hit the coast again in January, with stay-at-home orders in place and more people working from home, many Sussex residents were spending their days in cold, draughty, even damp homes. This last year has thrown the quality of our homes into sharp relief. For the first time, our entire population has been told to “stay at home’’. For those in poor, cold and expensive housing, staying at home doesn’t always mean staying physically or mentally well. 

It’s time to end that.

Much has been said about the benefits of ‘retrofitting’ – the process by which old, draughty homes are brought up to standard and made more energy-efficient. This year Brighton & Hove’s Housing Committee unanimously approved proposals for a detailed, costed retrofitting plan for existing council homes. To pay for the future work, they want to use the income from existing council homes already allocated for improvements to housing stock, as well as creating an additional £4m million reserve fund from that same income. They will also look to borrow from the Public Works Loans Board.

Local councils are uniquely placed to stimulate the growth of local skills, and supply chains – benefitting the wider community as well as council tenants and leaseholders. This applies both to retrofitting and new build. Improved energy efficiency will mean much lower electricity and heating bills for residents. 

Nevertheless, engaging with residents ahead of – and throughout – any retrofitting projects will be vital, as Hastings Borough Council demonstrated during an in-depth retrofit project of a 1950s block of flats in St Leonards. 

Energy efficiency and the challenge of reducing emissions is an area where it pays to cooperate with others. West Sussex has led a pan-Sussex solar project aimed at homeowners called Solar Together Sussex. The scheme takes the hassle for homeowners out of getting solar panels installed by effectively doing it for them. 

In Brighton & Hove, 1,183 residents registered for the scheme and 221 accepted an offer from the installer. Another entity doing amazing work in providing impartial advice to homeowners wanting to make their homes more energy efficient but uncertain of where to start is the not-for-profit Warmer Sussex.

Plans for warmer homes could lead to a surge in job opportunities. In Brighton and Hove, almost 800 new jobs could be created in the energy efficiency sector alone by 2030, based on current demand.

Across East Sussex, the estimate is just over 1,500 and for West Sussex it is a massive 2,284. With a keen eye on our recovery from this pandemic, we know looking at sustainable homes really is a win-win.

But supporting our residents is also about much more than creating jobs. It’s even about more than improving people’s health. The pandemic reminds us of future challenges that, if unaddressed, could affect our very survival. 

Scientists warn that we have until 2030 to do all we can to avoid the worst of the climate crisis. Carbon emissions from all domestic properties contribute 40% of Brighton & Hove’s total emissions, with approximately 11% of these emissions (from domestic properties) coming from the 11,500 council housing tenants and 2,500 leaseholders. 

Retrofitting is one part of the puzzle of how we make our homes easier to heat. But we want to go further and address the emissions from new homes the council builds. 

To do this, they’ve now approved a draft new-build housing sustainability policy. This has been developed to follow best practice for reducing carbon emissions in construction. Thanks to this work, council officers are already improving briefs for developers. 

At the national level, the Local Government Association has urged the government to work with councils to bring forward its commitment for a £2bn Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, part of a £3.8bn spending pledge made by the Conservatives during the election.

This would at least start the energy revolution in social housing, though analysis by the estate agents Savills suggests that £3.5bn a year is what is needed to get the UK’s social housing to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Although a target of 2030 – adopted by Brighton & Hove – is a more accurate deadline.

While government drags its heels on the action needed, locally Brighton & Hove Council  intends to step up its efforts to create warmer, more sustainable homes for its most vulnerable residents. 

Siriol Hugh-Jones is a Green Party councillor elected in 2019 and is joint chair of the council’s housing committee. She has a particular interest in retrofitting and energy efficiency and chairs the zero carbon (new homes) working group.

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