Housing associations ‘need to get better at working together’

Speaking exclusively to 24housing, Places for People’s David Cowans says the sector shouldn’t wait to improve energy efficiency and to “start learning from each other”.

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Places for People group chief executive David Cowans has urged the housing sector to be more proactive in terms of sustainability.

Speaking at NHF’s annual Board Excellence in Housing conference, in an exclusive interview with 24housing, Cowans said the sector should start to think about energy efficiency now and not to wait till the UK’s 2050 zero-carbon deadline.

He said: “People talk about 30 years as if it’s forever. It isn’t – it’s relative. In strategic terms it’s next week.

“The future isn’t tomorrow – it’s now. And it sounds glib and obvious, but it’s true, that if you’re not doing this research now, you can’t start doing the research into the future in the future.”

Though Cowans urged organisations within the sector to start working on energy-efficiency initiatives if they aren’t already doing so, he stressed that the need for collaboration through initiatives such as joint ventures is key.

“For me it’s about how we start sharing because we don’t, and I don’t know why we don’t,” he said.

“I’m very happy to talk to anybody about this [improving energy efficiency], but they all want to do it themselves, which is suboptimal.

“So I think we need to start learning from each other about how me might do this.”

Cowans continued: “I don’t think there’s evidence there isn’t [a silo mentality], let me put it like that.

“I’m not interested in blaming anybody for anything. I think we need to get a lot better at working together because the truth, is if we don’t, there will be multiple duplications.

“Is that necessarily in anybody’s interests?”

Cowans has been a key figure in the housing sector for over 30 years, specialising in areas such as urban regeneration and mixed-tenure and mixed-use development.

He is a Fellow of the Institute of Housing, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and a Chartered Director of the Institute of Directors.

According to Cowans, part of the issue is the sector discussing “what” can be done to improve energy efficiency rather than “how” to go about it.

He said: “Anything is on the table. But if I had my way of doing it, I would put a big sign on the wall with the word ‘how’, because that’s often the debate that doesn’t happen.

“You get a lot of debate about what we should be doing – well that’s relatively speaking straightforward. The ‘how’ is the bit that you need to put the effort into.”

Founded in 1965, Places for People refers to itself as a “placemaking and regeneration company” that aims to deliver social outcomes through a commercial approach.

The organisation currently manages more than 180,000 homes across the UK.

Case study – Padiham:

In 2017 Places for People, along with Property Services and Environmental Sustainability, launched its DREEAM (Demonstrating an integrated Renovation approach for Energy Efficiency At the Multi-building scale) pilot in Padiham, Burnley.

The project equipped each of the site’s 105 properties with a range of energy-efficiency measures aimed at reducing energy consumption – such as energy-efficient storage heaters, solar panels, and external wall insulation – at a cost of between £16-18k home.

“What was interesting was that the task was to reduce energy consumption,” said Cowans, “and it didn’t do that.

“What it did do was reduce the cost, so residents in those particular properties could use the hearing all the time in an affordable way.

“So actually, metrics like management costs, repair, all fell. We weren’t necessarily looking for that – it was a fairly clear energy-efficiency project – but it drove a set of really interesting, good outcomes.”

Cowans continued: “So I wouldn’t say we necessarily achieved the objective of getting energy usage down, but what we did do was help people get to the point where they could afford the energy they needed. And that’s a big issue.”

Before the project began, Places for People and its partners considered different regeneration approaches. One of which was the Energiesprong model, a Dutch initiative involving a whole-house retrofit and new-build standard with the aim of achieving net zero-carbon.

“We applied the thinking, because you can do that,” said Cowans.

“There’s lots of evidence in Holland about how it’s worked. But it’s financially quite an interesting process – it requires a completely different rethinking about leasing.

“So we’re not discounting that, but we’re trying to compare it to all sorts of other options.”

Cowans added: “There might not be just one way of doing it – there might be many. So we’re not ruling that out.

“We’re actively looking for examples, anywhere on the globe, where it works.”

The Padiham project – which was accompanied by two similar pilots in Italy and Berlin – concluded in September 2019, and Places for People has said it hopes its work on the site will “lead the way” in developing a cost-effective maintenance model for the whole of the UK’s social-rented market.

“The point about that was that it was an international research project,” said Cowans. “And the key point was learning from others.”

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