The case for public authorities

Tara Gbolade considers whether the face of public authority housing is changing.

Local authorities (LA’s) and housing associations (HA’s) aren’t identified as ‘innovative’ when it comes to quality and provision of housing in the UK (with a few exceptions!). With slowness in responding to changing markets, a very real cost budget to meet, and the Section 106 requirement by the government, public housing have historically suffered as the ‘add-on’ to development, often also represented as such.

But, with councils like Camden, Norwich and Exeter, as well as HA’s like Hastoe leading the way with Passivhaus developments, could the face of public authority housing be changing?

Camden Council’s Agar Grove estate is set to be the largest UK residential Passivhaus project, with over 500 dwellings (50% affordable and 50% market sale). Camden Council believe that Passivhaus design can reduce energy bills and cut carbon, thereby minimising the council’s cost of maintaining their heating systems, for example. Hastoe (independent registered housing association) has recently provided 14 dwellings following a needs survey identifying a strong local need; describing Passivhaus as “the common-sense approach to delivering low energy, healthy and comfortable buildings”. The above examples give an idea of the breadth of scales of development being pursued and implemented by public bodies.

In the last quarter of 2016/2017, housing associations completed approximately 8,080 homes (National Housing Federation), of these how many were passivhauses? I propose not even close to 5%. Yet, this is housing for the masses of families who struggle to make ends meet. Not only is the case strong for the residential end-user – reduced electricity bills, warm and healthy homes, the benefits to public bodies are just as great, if not greater.

Public bodies are responsible for maintaining their property. They cant do this effectively when their tenants choose to pay their electricity bills over paying their rent – leading to rent arrears. In 2016, the average LA social rent in England was £87.81/week (20% higher than the year before (£85.89)). Last year, there were also 79,900 non-decent local authority owned dwellings across England, and while this is a reduction of 24% from the previous year, there is still clearly a long way to go. Poorly insulated and/or ventilated houses means energy bills are high. As energy bills keep rising, tenants pay this before they look to pay their rent. If they can’t pay their rent, they default, which brings us back to LA’s not having enough finances to maintain properties and develop new ones – a vicious circle!

So, why should local authorities and housing associations choose Passivhaus?

Low Rent Arrears:

Many councils and HA’s have needed to raise their rents to account for the HA grants that have been cut. This means residents need to pay ‘unaffordable’ affordable rent, which can lead tenants into poverty. HA’s felt they could ease this poverty burden to the residents by tackling fuel poverty. The creation of Passivhaus developments means that tenants don’t fall into fuel poverty, and therefore poverty. For example, tenants in Hastoe HA pay £120/annum in energy bills for their 3Bed house – this has stayed steady over the last 5 years.

Better / Happier Residents:

This links to LA/HA tenants in most cases having more disposable income due to the substantial reduction in energy bills. Council tenants have actually responded saying “for the first time in 5 years I’ve been able to take my kids on holiday due to the substantial reduction in heating bills” (Hastoe Council). This means the local economy is being stimulated by the additional disposable income.

Lower Maintenance Costs:

Linked to the better heating units installed in passivhauses, as well as the use of better quality materials, local bodies are called out to fix problem less. Reducing energy bills and thereby minimising the council’s cost of maintaining their heating systems.

So, perhaps there is an argument for why far more housing associations and local authorities need to focus on developing passivhauses, and at the very least, far more sustainable homes in their boroughs.


Tara GboladeTara Gbolade

Tara is an Associate in an architectural practice and has 10 years experience in the construction industry. She has a background in residential and mixed-use developments, with a particular passion for sustainable design. Tara writes a Passivhaus blog: and you can follow her on twitter @taragbolade.

© 2017: Tara Gbolade and the AECB (for Terms and Conditions click here)

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