This piece was written by Simone Abram, Professor in Anthropology and Co-Director of the Durham Energy Institute. It was originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of the International Union for Housing Finance’s quarterly journal.
The Housing Finance Corporation (THFC) Symposium in July 20221 asked who pays when housing goes green but stays social. All the housing associations represented at the symposium were well aware of the urgency of lowering the carbon emissions of their estates, and the multiple benefits of ‘going green’ in the short and long term. But the question of how to get there posed a number of problems, beyond the headline question of how to finance decarbonisation works. Between the lines, there were some questions lurking that could be characterised as category-crossing. What exactly is it that should go green? Is it enough to improve the insulation quality of dwellings? Is it the energy source that should be decarbonised? How much will tenants and residents need to change their way of living to really create ecologically sustainable housing? That is, is it the tenants who need to be decarbonised as well as their homes?
That might sound like a joke, but like most jokes, it has a serious issue at its core. Who do we really think is responsible for decarbonising housing? Is it the developers, builders, managers, residents? Is it the tenants’ behaviour that’s the problem, or the managers’ decisions? How do housing managers think about tenants? How do housing association managers communicate with their housing managers to account for the preferences, interests and habits of tenants? Are the tenants an object of policy, whose behaviours must be changed to adapt to climate demands, or are the tenants members of a multi-expert community that works together to improve the quality of life for everyone, both within their estate and beyond? How much do you actually know about what motivates tenants and residents, and what it might take to empower them to be participants in an ‘infrastructural community’2?
2. Who remembers the new deal?
Looking back now on the era of urban regeneration that launched in the UK in the 1990s, Single Regeneration Budgets, New Deal for Communities and the like feel like part of a distant era. At the time, it felt like a breakthrough to begin to address the condition of social housing with the involvement of tenants themselves. The start of one major regeneration scheme under SRB in Sheffield in 2000 was marked by a broad stakeholder-conference, where a crowd of young mothers made vociferous demands: they wanted prompt responses to requests for repairs, recycling stations on every corner, clean, safe playgrounds for their children and solar panels on every roof, roughly in that order3. Tenants had clear ambitions for low-energy truly social housing estates, and they wanted to be part of the regeneration process.
After the housing clearances of the 1960s and 70s, the lessons about the dangers of moving people around like pawns, breaking up communities and splitting support networks were still fresh enough to be intrinsic to the design of the new regeneration projects. Then London Assembly member Nicky Gavron travelled around the country to champion the role of the tenant in rethinking social housing, and subsequent New Labour schemes insisted that every funded regeneration scheme should have tenant representation on the management board4. Despite enthusiastic and often very optimistic rounds of participatory planning, local authorities soon found themselves without the powers needed to bend housebuilders’ actions to the needs that had been prioritised, and very many plans fell victim to land-banking and profiteering, with government investment used purely to clear the land – and the tenants – to make way for private investors to build so-called ‘mixed developments’. These had much reduced levels of social housing and, in many places, significant numbers of dwellings were soon sold to private landlords. Only through the protections offered to social housing, though, was this actually built to higher specifications than private housing.
3. What have we learned?
That era is now twenty years behind us in the UK, although social-housing regeneration continues apace in other European countries. Some clear lessons have emerged, even so, in the two decades of ups and downs (or, more correctly, downs and ups) of urban regeneration in the UK and elsewhere.
First, it is relatively easy to ask people for their opinions, but it is easier to lose their trust when those opinions are ignored. Tenants who participated in the regeneration scheme in Sheffield that I followed over several years attended so many meetings that they lost count, and began to realise that each meeting seemed to start with the site managers explaining why the tenants’ ideals had not been fulfilled. On the other hand, local regeneration managers complained that it was always the same tenants who came along and ended up complaining about dog dirt and broken street lights when the regen-managers wanted to have strategic discussions. Yet it was clear that tenants used the meetings to make petty complaints because there were no other forums for these to be addressed. Working out who to address which complaint to is work – how far should tenants be expected to do this labour rather than landowners, developers or housing managers?
Second, local regeneration managers had few powers and were sometimes aligned with the received prejudices of councillors – those who felt it was prestigious to allow a national supermarket chain to take the place of the loyal local grocer who had served the tenants throughout the long building phase and then was unceremoniously evicted by the site managers, for example. Regeneration managers thought the community hall was outdated and should be demolished. Demolition went ahead without any concrete plan for replacement, or even any pathways towards alternative provision. Yet many of the tenants in the estate had been among the generation who had campaigned and raised money early on to build their own community hall with a performance stage and sprung dance-floor. They had held events there over many years and it had become the site of many shared memories. Allowing it to be demolished, despite being in serviceable condition and managed by tenants, was understood by them to be an insult, a betrayal of the self-determination of those very active tenants who had been the ‘heart’ of the community. It was an object lesson in disempowerment. Regeneration managers might, in principle, have been in favour of ensuring that local community provision was maintained, but in practice they had no powers to ensure that it appeared. The elegant regeneration plan, commissioned by very socially-focused architects, presented all the right priorities. Yet the chapters about local economic renewal and local services were the ones that stayed on the shelf, while the chapters on replacing social housing with private housing became the total focus of the regeneration project5.
Third, the process of renovation is long and arduous. Tenants became fatigued by constant petty mistakes and sometimes serious losses. When the site managers moved tenants out of flats above a row of shops occupied by the community forum, thieves immediately moved in and ripped out the copper piping, flooding the premises below, ruining community computers and contributing to the bankruptcy of the community association and the withdrawal of the many social services offered by that association. Even the process of moving tenants between housing was fraught and very many tenants relied on the community association to help them with removals, with packing, with resettling and so on. It was this group who reassured elderly tenants as they moved out of their flats that were to be demolished, that they needn’t actually remove any hooks or fix holes in the walls as demanded in the form letter they had received from the housing management. Such obvious bureaucratic mistakes had profound emotional consequences, particularly for the more fragile or elderly tenants.
Fourth, tenants live in the estate all the time. They know where the squeeze points are, and they often have canny solutions for wicked problems. But tenants are not one group of people. There are differences in expectations, levels of tolerance, politics and habits. Just as there are differences between housing managers. Yet each can too easily begin to stereotype the other, assuming that the ‘usual suspects’ are making the ‘same old complaints’. Where small irritations persist, everyone can get jaded and trust, once again, breaks down.
Trust is a fragile fledgling, it needs continuous nourishment from all sides. Small acts of kindness and consideration are the essential nutrients of trusting relationships. Now, even more than six months ago, than six years ago or more, after a pandemic and a terrifying escalation in the cost of living, compassion and listening are essential. One key ingredient to trust in institutions is predictability – if we know what is coming, we can adjust to it. This is one reason (other than the sheer hardship) that the current energy/economic crisis is hitting so hard. Who can people trust in now, if all of the structures they had assumed would be there for them are suddenly absent? For those who are still there, who are a lifeline, now is as good a time as any to revisit the core ethical principles of social provision.
4. That was then, is this now?
So there were flaws in the urban regeneration practices of the early part of the century – what has that got to do with decarbonisation now? One of the key problems facing the UK at the end of the 1990s was the sheer scale of the housing challenge. Decades of under-funding had left many social housing estates in poor physical condition, and years of recession and de-industrialisation had concentrated hardship in the areas of poorest housing. The question then was similar to the question now: Who should pay to refurbish the national housing estate? Housing quality was an issue then, as it is now, even if now the focus is more particularly on energy efficiency, insulation and removal of damp.
The problems outlined above reflect the decisions that were taken to try to engage private investors in housing regeneration. New Labour had an idea that housing developers could be persuaded to be good citizens, but in reality, once private finance was involved, the imperative was for regeneration to be profitable. That profit had to come either from increasing land values or increasing rent, and, inevitably, it meant that profit was gained at the expense of tenants who either found themselves looking for rehousing in another area, or facing increased rents in refurbished or rebuilt properties, whether in public or private rented housing. Tenants were frank about their perception, Hermione telling me on one occasion that,
‘They’re after that little ground like a dog after a bone aren’t they? I think what they’re going to do is build it up and make them yuppies’ flats and then the Londoners come up which is 1 hour travelling away. They buy this flat here, they get good money there because their houses are dear. They come get the cheaper houses and we’re out somewhere because they want our blooming ground! They must think we’re daft!’
It may be worth considering an exception that somewhat proves the rule. The Environment Trust non-profit organisation worked through the 1980s and 90s and into the early 2000s to promote low-energy social housing as a public good. Recognising that energy is a poverty issue, they sought to upgrade public housing in order to reduce the cost of living for tenants rather than to increase the profitability of the housing. They were largely successful, primarily by recognising what Ebenezer Howard argued a century earlier: the cost of housing is high because the value of land for housing is greater than land for agriculture or industry. If you can take land values out of the equation, then funding social housing suddenly looks much more achievable. Although the trust collapsed in the early 2000s, they had by then built sought-after, low-energy social housing, securing protection for tenants against increasing energy costs.
The challenge, then, is in the basic quality of property markets that direct land value to owners rather than occupiers. This is a problem of finance, well known in the sector, so why raise it here? Because it is important to keep the focus on the real nub of the problem, rather than on the behaviours or habits of tenants themselves.
So, what does it mean to include tenants in decarbonization?
5. Practical solutions
There are various practical lessons that can be learned from research into transitions and renovations. We know that imposing any new system on people is the worst way to introduce changes. Research from the UK’s urban regeneration years and from housing regeneration across Europe6 repeatedly shows that working with local communities is the most important element in successful housing management, yet is very rarely done to a satisfactory level. Often major housing upgrades are prompted by apocalyptic discourses, descriptions of housing conditions that emphasise problems in order to prompt funding opportunities7. While this might be a good strategy for accessing finance, it can have serious deleterious effects on attitudes to estates and tenants. This matters, since working with tenants demands that they are treated with respect, and not seen as either victims or agents of poor housing quality.
There is a balance to be had, though, between enabling people to make decisions that affect them, and expecting people to do the work of scrutiny themselves. For example, yes, I want to choose my own electricity supplier, but I don’t want to have to spend hours every week evaluating different suppliers and their rates to find the best option. Marketisation is not a good solution for customers on that account. But where choices are to be made that affect me, I want to have a say in them – that is, after all, the very basis of a democratic society. It is one that we must ensure is respected in even the most mundane processes of everyday life. It is often easier to see its absence than its presence. For example, we have numerous examples of energy retrofits where installers have commissioned equipment then left tenants to struggle to work out how to use it. Unfortunate coincidences can look like connections; a decade ago, a Manchester housing association managed to secure funding to install solar panels on all of its terraced houses but not the funding to run an information campaign. Just the same week that the new panels were commissioned, electricity prices went up and tenants found themselves paying more on their energy bills. Many assumed that it was the solar panels that had made their prices go up, and, therefore, complained that the money would have been better spent renewing their kitchens. When information is absent, people tend to fill the void with logical conclusions or conspiracy theories.
There is also work to be done to escape established prejudices. Anyone who lived with 1970s style district heating may well be sceptical about re-introducing it, even under its new name of ‘heat networks’, for example. Technological developments are coming thick and fast at the moment, and UK national energy policy has been inconsistent, with unrealistic objectives and mis-managed initiatives. Each failure increases the challenge for the next attempt to decarbonise housing. There are hugely promising infrastructure systems developing now, such as using the heat from water in abandoned mines to supply heat networks8; there are demonstrators being built to combine heat, power and fuel using hydrogen engines9; and solar thermos tanks have been shown to have the capacity to collect heat during the summer to heat buildings through the winter10. All of these exciting possibilities will rely on heat networks, so for buildings that are already system-heated such as tower blocks or apartment buildings, the transition could be quite smooth. Retrofitting heat networks into housing that has individual central-heating systems is clearly a much greater challenge, one in which tenants would have to be central to planning from the start. There are successful examples of collective action. Several streets of part private-owned terraced housing in Craghead in County Durham have been upgraded with solar panels and external insulation, and it is instructive to note that this has been achieved through the persistent devotion of one low-carbon economy officer from the local authority, working over several years to engage with each and every resident to persuade them of the project’s value to them11.
Such schemes have to work, if community support is to endure, but all new installations have snags, making technical support beyond commissioning a key element in building confidence in new schemes. Johnson’s work on ‘infrastructural communities’12 shows how starting with residents’ interests and values liberates a power to change things effectively and permanently.
This more inclusive and tenant-centred approach requires that tech support has to go well beyond the installation of equipment and, indeed, beyond the technical. When things work in unexpected ways, if they disrupt familiar habits, then support has to be ongoing until people start to feel comfortable with new practices and confident in the technology. Many people are terrified of anything that goes by the name of ‘technology’, even if they deal competently with high tech machines all the time. Just because you know how to programme a washing machine doesn’t necessarily mean you will be comfortable with a smart meter. You might be expert at programming your tv but feel hopelessly out of your depth finding information online. To the native speaker, the specialist language used to write instructions might be unremarkable, but to a non-native speaker, they can be incomprehensible. There are good reasons why IKEA use the language of images, and there are also good reasons why many people find them impossible to follow. We should probably expect misunderstandings to be the norm rather than the exception in any communications. If we did, then we might be more ready to provide the ongoing reassurance and support that is needed to create confidence and empower users of technologies.
At the same time, we can also recognise that there is pride in appearing to cope, in managing by oneself, and there is a fine line between offering help and being patronising or being thought to be interfering. A colleague researching the low participation rates in an early incarnation of the Green Deal found that householders did not want to be seen to be getting things for free. Receiving ‘charity’ would suggest that they were poor, and they did not want to be publicly humiliated in that way. Perhaps now that such a significant proportion of the UK population is reliant on food banks, that attitude might have changed, but it is so deep-seated that we should expect it to re-emerge. All of us want to be able to pay our own way, and most of us know there is no such thing as a free lunch.
That research also revealed the very profound catches in the offer of a free deal, too. Accepting home renovations means accepting work-people coming into one’s house, causing disruption, requiring supervision and, probably, a degree of hospitality (even if that means just a cup of tea). Many of the residents involved in the research mentioned above were very reluctant to have workers they didn’t know in their homes. They could not be sure that these workers would be reputable and they did not feel secure with strangers in the house. The value of using in-house maintenance staff, in particular of using local workforces comes into its own here. If you know the maintenance person, you are more likely to know whether it is safe to have them in your house. Will they make a mess and leave things half done? Will they hoover up when they have finished? Will your house be safe if you have to go out and leave them to finish the work? Such apparently minor issues can topple even major projects.
On the other hand, tenant-led renovation projects have repeatedly proved themselves effective and enduring. Where tenants are involved in the prioritisation, design and planning of interventions, they are more likely to be effective. And where tenants are also involved in installation, whether as workers or facilitators, outcomes tend to be more convincing.
6. Is listening enough?
So, what does it mean to work with tenants and hear their voice? Is it enough to ask questions and conduct a survey? Research suggests that people don’t necessarily answer surveys in ways that reflect their actual decisions or actions. When was the last time you felt satisfied by responding to a customer-satisfaction survey? Yolande Strengers has written about the dangers of designing systems for what she calls ‘Resource Man’ – a typical male individual, when most services are used by other humans and non-humans13. In fact, it is more often women doing the work of managing domestic energy use.14
If we ask questions with ‘typical tenant’ in mind, we’ll get answers about that tenant and miss all of the others who live in social housing. Surveys can be useful for measuring scale – such as to see how many people share a view or opinion put forward by someone in a tenants’ meeting, but they are not a useful tool for discovering new information.
Listening carefully, rather than asking questions can also reveal significant factors. Strengers and colleagues15 asked Australian homeowners how they used energy services in their homes, and found many people who left lights, heaters or air-conditioning on when they were out. Although they were out of the house, their pets were at home, and had a significant impact on energy use. That work chimes with closer analysis of building tech research, where almost all building efficiency measures are tested on empty houses, and often model-houses rather than real-life inhabited spaces. That means that all of those tests are unreliable – look closely at the limitations specified for building design tests, and if you are lucky you will find a set of assumptions made in designing the test. Nearly always these mean the tests represent something far from normal practice, a distance that might be summed up in a quantitative value for ‘uncertainty’, for example, but one that will lead real-life outcomes to vary significantly from the test results. Unfortunately, there are often cases where this difference is blamed on tenants being in some way unruly. We recently saw the awful outcomes caused by tenants being blamed for the mould in their flats16 – an extreme example of tenants being belittled, but a sobering one and a lesson for all.
Properly rewarding participation is time-consuming for everyone involved, but it is absolutely essential. It is lack of engagement that leads to disaffection, it is lack of understanding that leads to conflict and to broken systems, as much as broken relationships.
Let’s put this in simple terms: the more people in a community who feel shared responsibility for the upkeep of the playground (just for example), the more likely it is that any damage will be reported, repaired, and a safe environment maintained. If everyone thinks it’s someone else’s responsibility, then breakages are more likely to endure. Where community groups take charge of gardens and public spaces, they tend to be better cared for. For example, after involving schoolkids in an art project to design of ‘snow-gates’ in Sheffield, they remained completely unvandalized, even though other sites were frequently graffitied. It is more common for organisations to work with children and schools – planting bulbs, or designing artwork, and the outcomes of this kind of work are often very positive in terms of increased self-esteem among the children and lowered damage to the installations. But this principle is not only applicable to children, even if they are relatively easier to organise by dint of already being at school (largely). But tenants’ organisations can also be effective, if they can take responsibility and have access to the resources they need to deliver.
To be involved in decisions that affect your life means more than delivering your views. It means understanding the ways that decision- points have been reached, how agendas have been set, what the limitations are, and how other people’s views or conditions might affect future action. That also requires quite a commitment in emotional energy and the sheer time it takes to learn what’s going on17. Housing managers are paid to ‘manage’, but research shows that working with people rather than trying to manage them gives better outcomes. That means ensuring there are social spaces where tenants can meet and where tenants’ meetings can be held. It should be a sign of good management if managers are invited to a tenants’ meeting to discuss whatever is on their minds. Tenants are a resource, they have expert knowledge about the working practices of their estate, and expert knowledge about how to work together, as well as a fund of experience of what works – and what doesn’t. That resource will become increasingly crucial in the transition to decarbonised housing, wherever the funding comes from.
1THFC Cambridge Symposium 11-13 July 2022
2See Charlotte Johnson, Sarah Bell, Aiduan Borrion and Rob Comber, Working with Infrastructural Communities: A Material Participation Approach to Urban Retrofit. Science, Technology, & Human Values 2021, Vol. 46(2) 320-345
4See https://www.lgcplus.com/archive/londons-deputy-mayor-aims-to-increase-publicparticipation- in-local-government-19-05-2000/ , and a critique by Barnes and Knop 2003: ‘Constituting ‘the public’ in public participation’ Public Administration 81(2):379-99.
5The project was guided by a development brief (aka Masterplan), a document the city council liked to pretend did not exist – the only evidence is a dusty paper copy I extracted from them under duress in 2008.
6See, eg., Paul Watt and Peer Smets (2017) Social Housing and Urban Renewal: a cross-national perspective. Emerald Publishing.
7See ‘Lutter pour la Cité: Habitant-es face a la démolition urbaine’. Editions de la Derniere Lettre 2022.
10See https: //www.drammen.kommune.no/om-kommunen/aktuelt-arkiv/2020/unikt-prosjekt-med-sesonglagring-av-solenergi/ and https://www.pv-magazine.com/2020/05/22/borehole-thermal-energy-storage-for-solar/
12See footnote 2
13Strengers Y (2013) Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life: Smart Utopia? London: Palgrave Macmillan.
14See Charlotte Johnson 2020. Is Demand Side Response a Woman’s Work? Domestic labour and electricity shifting in low-income homes in the UK. Energy Research and Social Science 68: 101558.
15Yolande Strengers, Larissa Nicholls and Cecily Maller (2014) ‘Curious energy consumers: Humans and nonhumans in assemblages of household practice.’ Journal of Consumer Culture 0(0) 1–20. DOI 10.1177/1469540514536194
16See Ella Jessel 2022. Inside Housing 21.11.22. https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/rochdale-housing-chief-sacked-after-awaab-ishaks-death-from-mouldexposure-79172
17See Abram, S. 2014. ‘The Time it Takes: Temporalities of planning’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(S1): 129-147