February 2021 Edition
“It is clear that a top down commitment to substantial investment in a green deal renovate programme is only the start. It must be accompanied by an effective transformative model of implementation, in order to enable a successful transition. A systemic place-based approach, which engages local stakeholders and citizens is essential.”
The renovation of the housing system for sustainability figures in the post-Covid recovery programmes being developed across Europe. They promise to ‘build back better and greener’. System transitions to sustainability need a new type of transformative policy and politics. This is quite different to the austerity- led, market-oriented innovation policies of recent decades. It needs renewed ‘hands-on’ public purpose with new coalitions of individuals and communities as well as business.
The emerging programmes show a welcome focus on near-term exploitation of what we know in order to address two major short-term challenges: substantial emission reductions before 2030 for the climate emergency; and massive job creation from 2021 to repair the Covid crisis. Green Deal style decade long programmes can meet these twin challenges. Renovating our built environment is a programme, which a raft of recent expert studies have shown, can deliver both desperately needed targets.
All the advantages of focusing on building refurbishment are clearly laid out in the latest European Commission document ‘A Renovation Wave for Europe – greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives.’ Renovation works are labour-intensive, create jobs and the investments are rooted in local supply chains. They help local economies since this is a sector where more than 90% of the operators are small companies. The design, installation and operation of low-carbon solutions often require good levels of technical knowledge, thereby offering new skilled jobs within local economies. This offers apprenticeships, and other forms of work-based learning like day release, to help young people into the labour market with green, vocational training courses geared to the renovation agenda.
Most informed policy experts agree that this is needed, though there are significant differences between them as to its priority. Bill Gates’ ‘Green Manifesto’ places much more emphasis on the search for technologically driven solutions for the ‘hard to decarbonise’ energy intensive sectors, such as steel and concrete. There is no doubt that the future promise of such solutions, like ‘green hydrogen’ deserve policy investment and attention. However, they fall in the comfort zone of traditional, supply-side industrial and innovation policy. A serious ‘new deal’ style of buildings renovation programme does not fit this space. It is user oriented, addresses energy efficiency, and transforms a place-based system not an industrial sector. There remains a political argument to be won about the centrality of such programmes. While EU Commissioner Frans Timmermanns, who leads on Green Deal policy and implementation recognises its crucial importance, many politicians and policy-makers give it a lower priority. Furthermore, a close look reveals disturbing policy confusion as to how speedy refurbishment and renovation programme can be achieved. The patchwork in pace and the variability of progress in the built environment transition is deeply troubling given its crucial importance.
The contracted out, top down, individualistic ‘householder as consumer’ model has a poor record. The UK government is irredeemably attached to this approach. At the start of the last decade, the Cameron coalition government’s flagship scheme, the grossly misnamed ‘Green Deal‘ aspired to be ‘Europe’s most innovative and transformational energy efficiency programme’ Its annual target of 2 million retrofitted homes only struggled to reach 6,000 (<1%). Its model of private loans through an independent finance company did not deliver. The Green Homes Grant scheme launched in Boris Johnson’s 10 point ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ plan was contracted out to the US global consulting firm ICF. Of the £1.5billion promised in its first year, only £71million (<5%) was spent. In contrast, the far more successful German buildings transition, with its large refurbishment and retrofit programmes involves a coalition of actors representing building workers, city authorities, community and tenants’ organisations, banks and supply companies. Recent discussions on the recovery programme in France seek to combine the merits of a ‘one-stop shop’ access to funds with innovations in ‘territorial platforms’ and ‘energy information spaces’.
There is a crucial policy lesson here. Centralised, top-down methods are not the answer to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change. Central to green recovery should be transition programmes which set national sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs, in partnership with local stakeholders. That means looking to develop neighbourhood schemes so that entire streets are renovated together, rather than sole reliance on individual owner-occupiers to apply for a single grant for their own household. A community approach would bring economies of scale; permit accredited programmes with approved contractors; enable retrofit to be undertaken along with boiler replacements and renewable energy installations; introduce smart, digital appliances; and on-street vehicle charging infrastructure.
It is clear that a top down commitment to substantial investment in a green deal renovation programme is only the start. It must be accompanied by an effective transformative model of implementation, in order to enable a successful transition. A systemic place-based approach, which engages local stakeholders and citizens, is essential. This is necessary to achieve full takeup, the minimal goal of any programme. It also offers the prospect of local innovation and experimentation to deliver the community and employment co-benefits central to the green deal policy paradigm.
Fred Steward, Jon Bloomfield
 Greg Barker. 20 June 2011; Domestic Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation in Great Britain, Monthly report. Department of Energy and Climate Change; Jan Rosenow & Nick Eyre A post mortem of the Green Deal: Austerity, energy efficiency, and failure in British energy policy Energy Research & Social Science 21 (2016) 141–144
 Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Energy Efficiency Strategy for Buildings 2015; Fred Steward Action oriented perspectives on system innovation and transitions, EEA Report 25/2017 Perspectives on Transitions to Sustainability European Environment Agency ISSN 1977-8449 Ch 5 pp96-118 (2018)
The editors of this blog series are Fred Steward, Emeritus Professor, School of Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster, London; and Jon Bloomfield, Systems Innovation Policy Advisor, Climate Innovation Ecosystems, the European Institute of Technology’s Climate Knowledge & Innovation Community (EIT Climate-KIC).