Welsh Government’s Optimised RetroFit Programme continues catalysing decarbonisation

insulation installation
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More than 40 social landlords to date have tapped into Welsh Government’s Optimised RetroFit Programme (ORP) funding to make critical energy improvements to over 13,000 homes. Rachel England talks to Flintshire County Council and housing association Melin Homes to find out what’s worked and whether the scheme can help realise Wales’ overall ambition for decarbonisation.

Launched in August 2020, Welsh Government’s Optimised Retrofit Programme (ORP) was designed to take a pragmatic, whole-house approach to decarbonising Wales’ 1.4 million social homes. Through a ‘technology agnostic’ approach, the scheme – which has so far paid out £254 million to registered social landlords (RSLs) and local authorities across Wales – gives landlords and authorities the freedom to tackle the decarbonisation challenge on a house-by-house basis, giving due consideration to the construction of individual homes and the needs of the residents that live inside them.

Concurrently, the programme supports retrofit training and upskilling with the view to creating jobs and developing local industry, addressing the major labour shortage that threatens housing decarbonisation not just in Wales but throughout the UK. Findings from the scheme will be used by Welsh Government to build an evidence base to inform future policy and investment decisions.

Now in its third iteration, ORP has moved away from a competitive bidding process towards a more inclusive all-Wales model that’s playing a key role in supporting social landlords achieve the affordable warmth and decarbonisation elements of the Welsh Housing Quality Standard 2023. Unveiled in October last year, the new standard brings about the biggest changes to social housing standards in more than 20 years, so RSLs and local authorities are facing into a major challenge.

Flexible solutions

But it’s a challenge that – with the support of ORP – they’re prepared to meet head-on. Flintshire County Council, for example, has carried out works on 208 homes including new slate roof coverings with integrated solar PV, high-performance windows, repointing, internal ventilation, lighting and insulation. “We used our business-as-usual budget to cover preliminary costs and ensure the full ORP2 and ORP3 grants were used on energy efficiency measures,” explains Steve Fanning, Capital Works Team Leader at the Council. “We improved every property by a minimum of two EPC bands while saving 75% on estimate costs, with the net effect of 75% more homes being improved.”

At housing association Melin Homes, which provides more than 4,500 affordable properties to people in south-east Wales, ORP funding has been used alongside already-planned works to maximise decarbonisation efforts. “We look at our worst-performing homes first but with a clear goal of improving as many homes as possible, rather than investing the grant in fewer properties to get to EPC A,” says Trish Hoddinott, Melin Homes’ Head of Sustainability and Assets.

As well as insulation, triple glazing, monitoring and solar PV, Melin has also used the grant to explore innovative new technologies, such as infrared wallpaper heating systems. “ORP has always encouraged testing and trials because we need more options in our toolbox to achieve net zero,” says Hoddinott.  “It’s still early days, but the initial monitoring looks good.”

Tackling the skills shortfall

It’s no secret that a retrofit skills shortage is creating barriers to progress. Indeed, Fanning says it’s been a “disappointment” that a lack of businesses in the region means Flintshire County Council hasn’t been able to engage the services of a major Wales-based building company. But ORP is helping to create momentum in this respect. Flintshire County Council has partnered with a specialist in Mold to train and recruit in the local area, while Melin utilised a collective bid on ORP2 to create NetRet Group.

The group has been established to provide training, certification and support for the housing sector, and can be accessed by contractors to help with qualifications for domestic energy assessors, retrofit assessors and retrofit coordinators. “Using ORP funding and training provided by NetRet, we have created a decarbonisation team in Melin with two trainee retrofit coordinators and one trainee surveyor,” says Hoddinott.

Achieving objectives

Both Flintshire County Council and Melin report overall positive experiences with ORP. “The practical approach of the Welsh Government team, the flexibility to make changes as the work progresses and a realistic approach means we can make the right decisions to deliver better outcomes,” says Hoddinott. “The team are always on hand to support queries and welcome feedback, and the opportunities for networking and trialling new technologies benefits us all.”

However, there are question marks around funding provision when ORP eventually closes. “The main problem is what’s going to replace ORP in terms of grant support,” says Fanning, who also notes that while the scheme has proved successful to date, its overall ambition can only be achieved with a complete mindset change throughout the decarbonisation discussion.

“If we are to truly succeed with the laudable aspirations for clean affordable energy, then we need industry and ideology out of the conversation,” says Fanning. “Industry is seeking to influence policy in the shade of profits to the supplier, not in the interests of the people of Wales. Ideology is never going to be satisfied and is leading to unrealistic expectations, unreasonable timescales and stressed policy.”

He adds: “The ORP approach can only be successful in making clean energy affordable if it’s blended with zero carbon energy and electricity generation. Currently this is highly carbon intensive and in effect the electrification of heat, hot water and travel will simply displace emissions undermining the overall impact.”

Steve Fanning and Trisha Hoddinott will be discussing ORP in the Housing Hub at InstallerSHOW 2024, running 25 to 27 June at the NEC. It is free to attend, including parking. Register for FREE tickets here: installer-2024-splash.reg.buzz