Social housing will struggle to meet sustainability goals, report finds

Leaders made the admission at the Green Communities Summit, the sector's first discussion of how to hit the UK's 2050 net zero target.
An urban park and playground surrounded by residential tower blocks.

The social housing sector will struggle to meet its energy and biodiversity goals without placing greater emphasis on creating more sustainable communities, sector leaders have admitted.

Leading sector figures have said that in order to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, they will have to look beyond improving the energy efficiency of their existing and planned housing stock and focus on building greener communities.

The admission was made at this month’s inaugural Green Communities Summit, the sector’s first collective effort to discuss the implications of hitting the UK’s legally binding 2050 net zero target.

The summit was attended by the UK’s leading housing associations representing 4.7 million homes across England, Scotland and Wales.

The summit has led to the publication of a new report which identifies ways that housing associations can maximise the benefits of sustainable and diverse open spaces, along with a commitment to set up a new think tank to explore the findings of the paper.

“The purpose of the summit was to get leaders together to see if where the industry is in relation to meeting the government’s green agenda,” said Sam Jones, social housing lead at the UK’s largest landscape and maintenance contractor Ground Control, which organised the summit.

“It’s apparent the housing stock won’t meet the 2050 goal of net zero emissions, so the use of existing outdoor space has become an important element to reach those goals.”

While the social housing sector is not subject to specific legal targets about when it needs to hit net zero, many social landlords have used the government’s 2050 target as the benchmark for their decarbonisation work.

However, all new residential housing developments are expected to be subject to mandatory targets for biodiversity net gain starting from 2023, should the government pass its new Environment Bill.

Despite this, over three quarters of participants at the Green Communities Summit admitted their housing association is not equipped to utilise green spaces as part of their journey towards net zero.

“Climate change is the next biggest challenge for social landlords, both in terms of resource and investment required,” said Nusheen Hussain of Home Group and social housing alliance the Greener Futures Partnership. “It will impact every area of our sector. However, it is also one of the greatest opportunities we have to make a meaningful difference.”

“However, we know ten percent of social housing will never be sustainable enough to make it to net zero. As social landlords we will have to look at innovative ways to use existing green assets to create carbon offsetting and biodiversity enhancement opportunities in the green spaces we manage.”

The report arising from the first Green Communities Summit identifies five ways the sector can maximise the benefits of sustainable open spaces for customers, communities and society as a whole.

These include developing a long-term open space strategy which prioritises green space as being equally important as buildings, and capitalising on existing resources such as parkland, woods, lakes and canals.

The report also recommends that housing associations focus on quality open spaces, whatever the size of the space, and investing in enabling people to engage with the outdoors and enhance biodiversity.

“When it comes to the sustainability agenda housing stock is front and centre for housing associations, but we also have vast areas of open space and trees we can bring to bear,” said Lord Kerslake, chair of the Peabody Trust. “That makes us well placed as a sector to improve biodiversity and promote carbon capture.”

“The Government’s 25-year Environment Plan identifies the need to place environment and biodiversity at the heart of planning and development to create better spaces for people to live and work,” added David Godfrey from the Thames Estuary Growth Board. “The report marks the sector’s first co-ordinated effort to work together to make a reality of this.”

Image: The Green Communities Summit looked to explore how social housing can use green assets to deliver net zero by 2050. Credit: Ground Control.

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