Buildings & Heating: How and why we created this section
Buildings and Heating is one of the sectors that produces the majority of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Encouragingly, there are some actions councils can take in order to reduce emissions within this sector.
When we started creating this section it did feel like one of the harder sections to work out what we could score. This is because the emissions from housing are huge, and the actions needed are wide-reaching and sometimes outside the immediate scope of council powers. However, once we learnt about all the supporting and enabling actions councils can take, we realised there are some good, measurable actions councils can take. We now feel this section is strong, with clear actions that councils can take, including some that are not hugely costly.
Why were these questions chosen?
Councils have less direct control over emissions in this section as they can’t directly influence how private home owners and renters heat and insulate their homes. This is recognised in the Scorecards. Instead, our questions focus on the influencing and supporting role of councils in helping residents heat and insulate their homes more sustainably. This explains why there are questions on whether councils offer a service, and funding, to private homeowners to support energy efficiency upgrades.
We also recognise that the scale and cost of retrofit needed in the UK is huge. This can’t be done entirely by individuals, it needs state funding and support. This is why we haven’t asked a question on the exact number of homes a council has retrofitted in their area. Without national government support it is too costly and not something most councils currently have the funds to do themselves. Furthermore, all councils have different quality housing in their area so it is hard to standardise or compare easily what retrofitting might look like across different councils.
However, we have included a question on the average EPC (Environmental performance Certificate) ratings of all homes in the area, even though this is not something councils can completely control. We are aware of this, which is why this question is weighted low, despite the huge, positive, impact highly rated EPC homes would have on emissions. This question has been included because it is a good barometer of overall action in this area. A council that is enforcing MEES (Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (see more below)), retrofitting their council homes, and providing a service and funding for private homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient, will be improving their average EPC ratings for the area.
What didn’t we include?
As with all sections we have limited the number of questions that cover a council’s own operations because our Scorecards focus on what area wide climate action councils can influence. Because of this, we have not included a question about the average EPC ratings of council buildings. We also didn’t include a question about whether the council has built any new buildings to a zero or low carbon standard. But we have asked about EPC ratings of council homes, and this has a wider impact as some councils manage many homes.
From a data perspective, we explored the possibility of finding out the average EPC ratings of all council owned buildings and creating an average, however this data is not easily available. There is the national database of all buildings in the UK with an EPC rating, and then councils have their own building asset lists of all the buildings they own. Council building assets lists don’t legally have to include known EPC ratings of these buildings so the work needed to correlate EPC ratings of buildings from national data to council owned buildings would be a huge task. It is possible to do, and maybe someone out there will do it (and we’d love it if you did!). As a small team we wanted to focus on the Scorecards and scoring councils based on data already available, rather than creating our own.
We didn’t include a question on district heat networks in this section because it is not guaranteed that all district heat networks use renewable energy. District heat networks are something that councils can and should be implementing, as long as the energy they use is renewable.
You can see from the trial FOI requests that we asked councils the average EPC ratings of their council homes. Not all councils were able to provide this information. We decided that, despite this, we will include this question in the Scorecards and use FOI requests to answer the question. This is because if a council is serious about retrofitting its housing stock, one of the first actions they would need to do would be to understand their current housing stock. This would include knowing the EPC ratings of their current homes.
We have also used an FOI request to ask if a council employs a retrofit staff officer. This information is not available publicly, and a council will be able to answer this question quite easily. Employing a retrofit officer is an important action a council can take to do the research and preparation needed for retrofitting council homes and offices, and private households too. Employing a retrofit officer is also something that Local Partnerships advocate as an important step for councils in decarbonising buildings and homes.
We have a final question that uses an FOI request. This question asks if councils in England and Wales are actively enforcing Minimum Energy Efficient Standards. Since 2020, in England and Wales only, MEES states that private rented homes cannot be rented out if their EPC rating is lower than E and landlords can be punished and fined by councils if they do this. By using this power councils can support private renters to have better quality and more energy efficient homes. Effectively enforcing MEES has multiple co-benefits, including cheaper energy bills for renters and healthier homes which is why we have weighted this question as high. In Scotland, there was planned legislation to be introduced to require private rented homes to be EPC D or above, higher than the English and Welsh minimum currently of EPC E, but this was not introduced because of the COVID lockdowns in 2020 and now the legislation is in limbo. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland require rented homes to have an EPC rating, but set no minimum as to what the rating can be. So for this reason, we are unable to score councils in these nations on this.
Other than the household EPC rating data, there is only one other question that uses national data in this section. This question is “Does the council have a scheme to allow private home-owners to purchase renewable energy cheaper through collective buying?”. This question doesn’t rely solely on national data, as we recognise that it is possible, though unlikely, that a council could launch a collective renewable energy buying scheme not with Solar Together, Solar Streets or Ichoosr. In this case, we are using the national data available but will also be checking every other UK councils’ pages in case there is additional evidence. Whilst this action would have a big impact on emissions, the success of this action is reliant on other actors beyond the council. Households have to sign up and complete the switch or get the solar panels on their roofs. For this reason this question is weighted as medium.
As with all of our sections, we have tried to keep the questions focussed on the most impactful and measurable actions of councils for Buildings and Heating. A special thank you to those we consulted with as part of this section. We hope this blog has been helpful for campaigners and councils alike to better understand why we chose the questions we did in this section. We’re looking forward to marking councils on this section to find out in full detail what councils are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and heating in their area.