Sustainability in Social Housing

Image from Northwestern University

Can you define sustainability? It is one of the most confusing words of our time, and also one of the most important ones – if you interpret the word in the sense of making sure that we don’t wreck this planet for future generations. We all know that our climate is changing. We do not know the exact consequences of pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but we know for sure that it ain’t gonna be raining unicorns and fairies anytime soon. Maybe a chubby unicorn (i.e. a rhino) if we have any left in the near future. What we do know is that two direct consequences of climate change facing the housing sector will be overheating and flooding. The Committee on Climate Change even declared housing is unfit for the future.

(Un)common Ground

Sustainability is a fledgling word in the world of social housing. A few organisations have sustainability strategies or policies. Some have teams or individuals dedicated to sustainability. When I looked at some of these documents to compare different strategies and policies, I noticed how the definition of sustainability is interpreted differently in every organisation, and how the steps to create sustainability differed substantially. While I was working in social housing, I was part of a sustainability group across different social housing providers. Every single one of us had different roles in our organisations with different foci, different responsibilities, and different tasks. Size also matters, larger organisations are able to dedicate more resources to sustainability than smaller ones.

During the first part of my field work for my PhD research, I asked members of executive teams at social housing providers about key stakeholders in sustainable social housing, the biggest barriers to implementing sustainable social housing, and what needs to change the current situation.

The point of my field work was to get people to agree on key stakeholders, barriers, and recommendations. Most interesting during this work was the initial divergence of participants’ views. Everybody approached the question from a different angle and gave very different answers to the questions. To me this highlights the issue we have with coming up with addressing sustainability as a sector. We do not have a clear definition and interpretation of sustainability and how we should address it. We are not all on the same page.

It is not yet a requirement to have a sustainability strategy or policy for social housing providers. This will likely change, considering we already have a fuel poverty strategy for both England and Scotland setting out requirements for energy efficiency in our homes by 2030. In 2019, the UK government announced the UK will have to be below carbon output levels of 1990 by 2050, i.e., net zero.

What IS sustainability?

One of the most agreed upon definitions for sustainability comes from Gro Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister. She chaired the Brundtland Commission aka World Commission of Environmental Development. The commission published a report called Our Common Future in 1987, coined the term ‘sustainable development’ and gave it the following definition:  

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

A definition of sustainable social housing was proposed by Akanbi Oyebanji in 2014:

“Housing that is made available by governments and/or non-profit organisations through various assisted housing programmes, built with environmental friendly and sustainable materials, have a long-term economic, environmental and social benefits without an increased life-cycle cost, and allowing not only the present but also the future generations to meet their housing needs on the overall social value basis.”

Working Together

Councils across the UK are declaring climate emergencies. Almost 70% of all councils in the UK have declared a climate emergency. This means councils will have to create a plan tackling climate change. Almost certainly, this will include housing, as our buildings produce quite a lot of carbon emissions. From personal correspondence, I know that some social housing providers are seriously considering what role they as an organisation play in working together with councils that have declared a climate emergency. I have also seen one housing provider declaring a climate emergency themselves.

Some readers working for housing providers might have participated in the development of a unified ESG (environment, social, governance) standard by  Peadbody, Centrus, and the Good Economy. This comes after recent interest from investors into the ESG performance of social housing providers. The better the ESG performance, the more willing the investor. Your organisation might also be participating in the HACT and OSCRE data standard. Initiatives such as this try and bring the sector on the same page.

One thing we do need to agree upon is how we will work together on sustainability. We can use what we already have – a definition, councils (and housing providers) declaring climate emergencies, unified standards, and build upon that.

Surveys – you know you love them!

If you read this far, you must be quite the ardent sustainability fan. As a thank you, here is a joke: One wind turbine asks the other: “what kind of music do you like?”  Says the other: “I’m a huge metal fan!”

I know, it’s great. Thank me later, after you participated in my survey! I am entering the second phase of my PhD field work. This phase looks at a few things discussed above, which is why I thought I take this opportunity to rope you in as a participant. I created two different surveys, for slightly different groups.

Stakeholders – have your say

The first survey goes back to the barriers and recommendations to sustainability in social housing, mentioned above. This time I’d like to know from stakeholders what they think. This would be:

  • social housing tenants
  • investors
  • governmental housing agencies both local and national
  • local councils
  • national organisations such as NHF, CIH
  • and anyone else you think is a stakeholder.

If you are a stakeholder reading this, please participate, I will be forever grateful! If you know someone who might be interested, please forward the link to them. I am keen to speak to people, so if you want to chat about this topic, please send me an email.

Decision Makers – your time to shine

The second survey is concerned with some of the wording used around sustainability. This survey wants your honest opinion, as a manager at a social housing provider with decision-making powers, what you think of various different choices presented to you. I am trying to find out what language to use when talking about sustainability, and what some of the issues are around this topic. I might follow this up with interviews, so if you are really, really keen to be part of this discussion, please drop me an email.

Link to the survey:

Thank you all for reading thus far, and I look forward to reading what you have to say when you participate in the surveys. You know you want to.


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