The communication issues around retrofit – and why social landlords must get it right

Energy storage solutions for social housing

Communication with residents remains a crucial issue for successful retrofit projects, says Mark Sanderson.

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero estimate 13% of households, the equivalent of 3.17m, were in fuel poverty in England in 2023. Reassuring then that there are funding schemes to help alleviate this issue, like the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF), which has more than £75m in allocation, offering energy efficiency upgrades that could help a further 8,800 households save hundreds of pounds a year on their energy bills.

Housing associations can play a crucial role in helping the country to meet its net zero targets, but there are issues preventing this from happening, despite the funding. This in turn is stopping tenants from enjoying much needed energy saving benefits.

A study published in 2024 by researchers at Aberystwyth and Swansea universities is the latest in a series over recent years highlighting the barriers to deploying new technologies in social rented properties. In a nutshell, communication remains an issue and developments this year have shown how this is still coming to pass, with it being reported that almost half of Winchester City Council tenants refused retrofitting programme offers, as part of the SHDF, to make their homes more energy efficient – with 850 of 1,585 households approached accepting solutions such as loft and cavity wall insulation.

While it is disappointing news outlets have decided to focus on the negative, as it is encouraging that near on 1000 people have taken up these retrofitting improvements, Winchester City Council reflected that communication to tenants around such programmes does still remain an issue.

Engagement activity

Like many councils, they have trialled coffee mornings, website materials, videos and forums to engage residents about the offering. They are now looking to use WhatsApp to communicate the benefits of retrofitting. Although all good ideas, it’s not necessarily the lack of communication, but it’s frequency and depth over the course of the project that’s the issue.

Naturally, when it comes to receiving information, most tenants would like to hear directly from their landlords. However, if that comes in written communication in what could be perceived as a dictatorial style; for example, with warnings of fines for those using their newly insulated loft space for storage, which has been reported, then this can risk frightening tenants away.

Tenants would also expect to hear from the contractors employed to do the retrofitting – who will be spending time in their houses – in order to get a clear understanding of how long they might be in their house carrying out the works and what exactly it entails so they can prepare accordingly. This is because the work can be disruptive, which is far more reasonable if tenants are aware, less so if they are not.

This is where it is so important that housing associations and councils need to be so closely aligned with their chosen contractors, who aren’t just needed for the installation, but also for sufficient guidance for tenants to use the technology themselves. This goes a long way in building trust, although there are further methods to gain it.

Open days

While case studies and show homes have their place, it is beneficial for tenants to be able to visit a nearby tenant success story who’s had retrofitting done. Organising such an open day may require providers to offer any tenants prepared to host an event with an incentive, but this is a worthwhile investment, as sharing success stories that can be seen beyond the pamphlets and laptop screens is a big part in building trust with tenants. They can then talk to and learn from their tenant colleagues, as opposed to having to rely on contractors, some of whom, despite best intentions, may have limited time resources beyond the installation itself, or sales people, who some tenants might deem to have only vested interests.

The social housing sector is vast, so retrofitting energy saving technology across it remains a big task, particularly when it has further issues to contend with, like finance and future proofing properties. However, if properly engaged, tenants are hungry to fully understand everything about retrofitting.

Whatever direction housing associations or councils take when it comes to applying funding in this area, what is clear is that they need to produce well thought out and detailed communication plans that cover tenant engagement and support throughout the cycle of pre and post installation.

This process alone will serve to collect further learnings to improve take up rates in the future. It was also enable a growing number of social housing householders to be taken from sceptical and unsure to happy tenants who are confident when it comes to using retrofitted technology and empowered to take control of their heating use to save money.

For more information on social housing retrofit, visit InstallerSHOW 2024, 25 to 27 June at the NEC. Register for FREE tickets here: installer-2024-splash.reg.buzz