Social housing providers must make net-zero carbon more relevant to customers if they are to meet the challenge of decarbonisation, a housing association’s research has revealed.

Orbit’s report – 2500 Days – Navigating the path to net zero carbon homes with our customers – exposures the challenge of driving the behavioural changes to achieve net-zero carbon goals at a time when residents are focused on the current cost-of-living crisis.

From talking to over 700 hundred households, Orbit says it’s clear that awareness and understanding of net-zero carbon has not increased significantly among social housing residents since the social landlord’s inaugural report on the topic was published in September 2021.

The report sheds light on the creep of fuel poverty in the UK, with a greater proportion (80%) spending more than 10% of their income on energy costs compared to 71% in 2021. There has also been a 50% increase in the number of customers going without heat to save money in the past 12 months.

Just one in four respondents (26%) said they were clear on what net zero means, compared to 22% in 2021. However, concern regarding climate change has increased, with 38% saying that they were ‘very concerned’ compared to 30% in 2021.

Amid spiralling energy costs, 75% of those involved in the research said they are interested in changing their behaviours to become more energy efficient. It is also financial considerations that were driving some increased sustainable behaviours such as people eating less meat, fish, and dairy products (63%).

Marginal increases were seen in customers growing produce (29%) and saving water (88%), driven by a combination of protecting the environment, saving money and other factors. And despite a willingness to embrace policies around recycling (94%) and restoring habitats for wildlife (92%), there was a greater reticence among respondents to make the switch from gas boilers with just over half (53%) in favour of such a move, again driven by financial concerns.

David March, Head of Environmental Sustainability at Orbit, is disappointed but not surprised by the slow progress on increasing knowledge and understanding of net-zero carbon, explaining how “it underlines the need to make the journey to net zero carbon personal and relevant to our customers. Rather than setting targets, we should talk about creating cheaper to heat, warm, comfortable homes.

“The somewhat low-key response to heating innovation is understandable and largely driven by a lack of reliable information. It highlights a knowledge gap and sometimes a misconception – and this is something that housing associations are well-placed to address with the support of our supply chain partners.”

Gavin Smart, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), added: “With 20% of UK carbon emissions linked to the residential sector, the current cost-of-living crisis is a stark reminder of the need to move to net-zero carbon as fast as possible, retrofitting homes so that they are no longer leaking energy. The best way to reduce the amount people must spend to heat their homes, now and in the future, is to invest in energy efficiency measures. The findings and recommendations in this report offer excellent insight into how housing providers can effectively work towards decarbonisation action plans with residents. CIH are pleased to be involved in this important work by Orbit Group. As the professional body for housing, it’s our role to help make a positive difference across the sector and help to provide everybody working in housing with the skills and knowledge needed to deliver on decarbonisation goals to ensure that everybody has an affordable, warm, safe place to call home.”

In the report, Orbit outlines a four-point plan to drive engagement among households on net-zero carbon as it moves from the pilot phase of its retrofitting project to rolling it out across its entire housing stock. Orbit’s £3.6 million Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator project, which has received £1.45million in government funding, has made 69 homes in the Stratford-upon-Avon area more energy efficient and provides a vivid illustration of the practical challenges and costs of achieving net-zero carbon emissions.

It has also been invaluable in helping to shape effective customer engagement, as David March explains: “It is clear from this research that if customer communications around the retrofitting programme focus on net zero carbon as a driver to engage customers, it would be a struggle to gain traction, whereas strong messaging around the environment and energy affordability would resonate.

“We have tested this and found it to be very much the case. In a series of roadshows and webinars over the past year we have found that customers are more inclined to buy into messages that have a clear call to action and personal benefit. Going forwards, we will continue to listen and learn from our customers and incorporate this approach in our retrofitting works.”

Paul Richards, Group Director for Customer and Communities at Orbit, commented: “We are proud of the progress we have made during the past 12 months and recognise the value of the insight that we have gleaned along the way – it will inform our approach going forwards. But the fact remains that this is a difficult and complicated issue. 18 months on from the publication of our last report, we find ourselves in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, where energy prices have rocketed to unprecedented levels for consumers and businesses alike. Consequently, it is more important than ever to keep talking to our customers about this important and complex issue to find out how the events of the past year have affected their opinions and behaviours.

“As a sector, social housing has not been immune to increased financial pressures. And yet, collectively, we are well placed to effect significant and positive change by improving the energy efficiency of 14% of the UK’s housing stock. The benefits of such projects extend far beyond the environmental, helping to address affordability and health & wellbeing issues for some of the most vulnerable households.”