Glasgow’s retrofit programme: rival agendas 

We’re very pleased to publish this post by Les Levidow, Open University, les.levidow@open.ac.uk

With the slogan, ‘Our Climate:Our Homes’, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) led a multi-stakeholder proposal for a ‘whole house retrofit’ approach for decarbonising heat in homes.  It included civil society groups such as the Poverty Alliance, Living Rent tenants’ organizations and Friends of the Earth.  They jointly demanded substantial funds and new state structures, especially a National Infrastructure Company and municipal energy companies.  This plan would provide numerous unionised, green jobs for high-quality retrofits.  These measures would be necessary to avoid the limitations and failures of the UK government’s retrofit initiative (STUC, 2021).  

This extended a previous proposal, coordinated by Common Weal (2019 et al.). It contributed to a broader plan: a ‘Green New Deal for Scotland’.   As regards the institutional means, ‘genuine public-good private-public partnerships should be developed, but government should also intervene directly where it needs to’ (Common Weal, 2019: 104).   This section draws on an interview with two authors of those reports (Stuart Graham of the Glasgow TUC and Craig Dalzell of Common Weal, 10.03.2022). 

For an adequate retrofit programme, a major obstacle has been Glasgow’s neoliberal policy framework, dating from at least the 1980s. It has structured public expenditure as new markets aiming to incentivise entrepreneurialism and to attract business investment.  This framework had generally diminished decision-making capacity of the public sector (Boyle et al., 2008).  Given that neoliberal framework of the local authority, its retrofitting plan soon conflicted with the labour movement agenda prioritising the public good. 

Glasgow. Arden. Housing estate. Kyleakin Road. 10 January 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2021 the Scottish government funded  the Glasgow City Region to retrofit homes and substitute renewable energy systems for natural gas. Sufficient for a half-million houses, the funds were meant for jointly addressing fuel poverty, heat efficiency and decarbonisation (Sandlands, 2021).   Glasgow City Region announced an ambitious plan to retrofit the housing stock by 2032 (Glasgow City Region, 2021a).  This was part of the Glasgow Green Deal, which promised many benefits such as ‘ensuring a fairer and more equal economy’ (Glasgow City Council, 2021).  

Glasgow City Council organised a 3-day event raising several challenges of a retrofit programme.  According to the Council, suitable technology was already available to scale up retrofit. But the programme would need ‘collaboration between government, industry and training providers to realise Glasgow’s aspiration of carbon neutrality by 2030’.  An initial pilot was to retrofit the city’s iconic tenement blocks. For the Low Carbon Homes agenda, the Council’s experts mentioned issues such as social justice and fuel poverty (LCH, 2021).  The plans for Glasgow to host CoP26 in November 2021 intensified debate on decarbonisation, strengthening the impetus for the government’s plans and promises. 

Neoliberal obstacles

Their institutional framework posed several obstacles to a worthwhile, credible retrofit programme.  A full retrofit programme may need until at least 2040. Yet the Scottish government made a firm financial commitment only for the 2021-2026 Parliamentary term.  

This short timescale provided a weak incentive for business investment in the necessary skills and local manufacturing capacity, whose gaps were well known (CXC, 2022).  According to a retrofit programme manager, ‘The existing short-term funding streams do not give businesses the long-term confidence of a multi-year pipeline of work that will encourage the acceleration and expansion of business investment in the skills of their staff and manufacturing capability (Glasgow City Region, 2021b: 2).   Under those inadequate arrangements, a retrofit programme would depend on the current long supply chains, especially imported expertise, equipment and materials.  Alternatively, the government could make a commitment to create local manufacturing capability, as a crucial basis to realise the local economic and environmental benefits (Common Weal, 2019a).

Energy performance standards were also weak or doubtful.   Initial negotiations with contractors agreed pilot projects at a high standard of energy efficiency, such as Passivhaus in some cases (Paciaroni, 2021; Wilson, 2021).  By contrast, the overall programme set a minimal standard, Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) level C.  This would mean upgrading approximately a half-million units that were at a lower standard.  

However, this basis would not guarantee any specific standard in practice.  According to some experts, the EPC is simply an administrative compliance method,  not an energy efficiency measure or predictor, partly because the outcome depends on each householder’s behaviour (quoted in LGHPC, 2021: 6).  Whatever the modest gain, it may be superseded later by a higher standard, thus requiring an extra upgrade at a greater overall cost. 

A comprehensive programme would need householders’ enthusiasm, based on seeing initial retrofits visibly saving heat costs  in other households.  This has been one reason for a ‘fabric first’ approach, i.e. installing effective insulation before alternative heat sources in order to maximise  their benefit from the start.  This is necessary but insufficient because a ‘fabric first’ approach prioritises technical considerations.  By contrast, ‘an occupant-centred “folk first” approach may justify overcoming financial and related barriers which themselves do far more to restrict the choice of options for improving energy efficiency’ (CommonWeal et al., 2019: 3).

Such barriers feature the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) level C.  Why did Glasgow’s programme adopt this?   As one driver,  a minimal standard simplifies competitive tendering, the wider neoliberal regime which has driven the overall retrofit programme. This creates competition among organizations that instead could cooperatively raise standards on a case-by-case basis.  According to a housing association, ‘The funding is not being allocated strategically. Funding is still allocated through a bid process, which means that we are competing against other organisations’ (quoted in LGHPC, 2021: 19).  According to the relevant Minister, ‘innovative collective models of transition may play an important role in increasing the pace of retrofit’ (Harvie, 2022). Yet any such model has been constrained by the regime of competitive tendering, which can be understood as a techno-market fix. 

As a related obstacle, a competitive call  favours large foreign companies with administrative capacity for the necessary documentation but perhaps minimal standards for energy efficiency.  Price competition can drive down quality in practice.  Competitive tendering excludes and/or fragments small local suppliers which have skills for higher standards. This arrangement deters the large-scale cooperative programme that would be necessary for the greater skills investment, mutual learning and differentiated approach to the diverse building types (Glasgow TUC-Common Weal interview, 10.03.2022).  In those ways the programme’s public-good benefits have been limited by Glasgow’s decades-old neoliberal regime (Boyle et al., 2008; Webb,  2019). 

Like many cities, Glasgow has lacked the skills for normal repair and maintenance of the housing stock, much less for new skills.  So a strong incentive would be necessary for workers to learn retrofitting skills.  As the labour movement proposal had said, ‘Scaling up delivery poses a huge skills challenge, particularly given the large number of self-employed contractors understandably reluctant to take time out of being paid to learn new skills’ (STUC, 2021: 3).  

In 2021 Glasgow initiated such a training programme, but it had little take-up, for several reasons.  The Scottish government’s low, short-term financial commitment has provided a weak incentive for building-trades workers  to take up the opportunity. As a plausible disadvantageous scenario, some workers who already have building skills (such as electricians or plumbers) could obtain retrofit training, find that the programme is short-lived and then have difficulties returning to their original trade.  Such doubts have been voiced as reasons for little interest in the training opportunity (Glasgow TUC-Common Weal interview, 10.03.2022).

Public-good alternative

In 2019 Common Weal, a Scottish ‘think and do tank’, had anticipated such obstacles and so proposed a comprehensive decarbonisation plan.  It lay within a broader Common Home Plan, also called a Green New Deal for Scotland.  This would provide a comprehensive alternative to Glasgow’s techno-market fix.

As a key message of the Common Home Plan,  

You’re not powerless…..  We’re going to show how a Green New Deal for Scotland will not just save the world but will benefit our country, our communities and you individually. Better food, better homes, better jobs, cleaner air, less waster and pollution and an economy based on repairing the things that we need rather than throwing away things that we don’t need….   By leading as an example, by coming up with the solutions and then exporting our skills and our innovations to others we can bring the word with us rather than sitting back or asking the world to stop so that we can catch up (Source News, 2019).

Rather than try to drive GDP growth, this plan promotes an economy of sufficiency.  It invites people to help create the necessary innovation, which prioritises repair, refurbishment, digital services and better resource use (Common Weal, 2019).  

For decarbonising heat in houses, the plan identified many ways to replace natural gas, reduce GHG emissions and address fuel poverty.  Ideally, district heating systems would distribute surplus heat at low cost.  Heat pumps would have a stronger rationale in rural areas, though also a wider relevance.  By contrast, the gas industry agenda for CCS-hydrogen ‘poses serious risks to the decarbonisation of Scottish energy supplies’ (Common Weal et al., 2019: 8). 

Image by Pete Cannell – Air Source Heat Pump on Shetland CC0

This had significant differences from prevalent decarbonisation agendas.  While they depend on  future techno-solutions, this one is ‘based almost entirely on current or old technology’.  The dominant ‘market-pricing-and-subsidy regime’ would increase inequality, so this plan emphasises public-sector responsibility (ibid: 11).  This change would be necessary so that state procurement becomes a true public service,  beyond the transactional-based profit-oriented economy.

Its plan outlined many inherent complexities of decarbonising heat in houses, as stronger grounds for state-led institutional change, in particular: ‘Set up a National Housing Company to retrofit all existing houses to achieve 70-90 per cent thermal efficiency. Change building regulations and invest in domestic supply chains to make almost all new construction materials in Scotland either organic or recycled’ (Common Weal, 2019: 39).  

It also made specific proposals for low-carbon heat sources.   Given several disadvantages of electricity-based heat, the report promoted district heating systems as cheap, viable means to deliver renewable heat to homes (Common Weal, 2020b). For both those aspects, public-sector responsibility would be necessary to implement effective solutions and overcome potential obstacles, as the reports emphasised. 

Those proposals had anticipated limitations that later arose in the Scottish government’s 2021 retrofit programme and Glasgow City Region’s role.  In response, the labour movement network tried to persuade the Scottish government to establish the necessary long-term commitment, higher standards and institutional framework, including a National Infrastructure body for overall decarbonisation. Likewise they tried to persuade the City Council to replace the competitive tendering regime with  a more flexible basis that would facilitate more diverse bids and raise quality standards. 

Although technical studies per se cannot overcome the problem, they can help identify institutional weaknesses and policy obstacles.  Solutions need political changes which can drive economic change towards shorter, high-quality supply chains supporting long-term skilled livelihoods.  The necessary political changes would depend on a high-profile campaign that links issues such as labour standards, housing quality, environmental protection, fuel poverty, etc.  

As a potential means to link such groups and issues, the campaign ScotE3 (employment, energy and environment) was already advocating climate jobs within a Just Transition framework.  It was initiated by trade unionists  and climate activists, ‘keen to find a way of taking climate action into workplaces and working class communities’.  Alongside its positive proposals are attacks on false solutions, especially a CCS-hydrogen technofix for decarbonising fossil fuels.  The latter has been a basis for the North Sea Transition Deal,  endorsed by the Scottish government (Scot.E3, 2021).   

Scotland has a special opportunity for a socially just, environmentally sustainable decarbonisation agenda. This is partly due to its devolution arrangements, with a larger budget and greater legal powers than the UK’s regional authorities.   Yet the Scottish government has made false promises, such as through its neoliberal retrofit framework or hypothetical technofixes, thereby avoiding responsibility for decarbonisation.  By default, these promises may be accepted by a passive public – unless opposed by a strong alliance for climate justice.

As the Glasgow case shows, a Green (New) Deal has become a widespread banner, attracting divergent agendas for a retrofit programme.  These promote divergent sociotechnical forms, linking technical standards with different social orders, especially a rivalry between market-competition versus community-worker cooperation.  To realise the potential benefits, a public-good agenda would need to undermine and displace the dominant policy framework.  

Author’s note

This blog piece comes from my book chapter on Green New Deal agendas.  It starts by comparing US and UK nation-wide agendas, especially trade-union pressures to endorse false solutions (also in Levidow, 2022).  Then it analyses GND local agendas to decarbonise heat by retrofitting houses, e,.g. from Leeds Trades Council (2020), followed by the Glasgow case – as below. 

Book details: Les Levidow, Beyond Climate Fixes: From Public Controversy to System Change, forthcoming from Bristol University Press, 2023, 
https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/beyond-climate-fixes

References

Boyle, M., McWilliams, C. and Rice, G. 2008.  The spatialities of actually existing neoliberalism in Glasgow, 1977 to present, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 90(4) 313-325. 

Common Weal. 2019.  Our Common Home: A Green New Deal for Scotland
https://commonweal.scot/index.php/building-green-new-deal-scotland

Common Weal et al. 2019.   The Future of Low Carbon Heat for Off-Gas Buildings: a call for evidence.  Glasgow:  Common Weal, Glasgow Caledonian University, and the Energy Poverty Research Initiative, https://commonweal.scot/index.php/policy-library/future-low-carbon-heat-gas-buildings

Common Weal. 2020a. The Common Home Plan: Homes and buildingshttps://commonweal.scot/our-common-home/homes-buildings

Common Weal. 2020b. The Common Home Plan: Heating,   https://commonweal.scot/our-common-home/heating

CXC. 2022. Clean Heat and Energy Efficiency Workforce Assessment.  Edinburgh: ClimateExchange, Clean Heat and Energy Efficiency Workforce Assessment (climatexchange.org.uk)

Glasgow City Council. 2021.  Glasgow Green Deal: Our roadmap and call for ideas

Glasgow City Region. 2021a.  Home Energy Retrofit Programme, 
https://invest-glasgow.foleon.com/igpubs/glasgow-greenprint-for-investment/glasgow-city-region-home-energy-retrofit-programme/      (Note: webpage indicates no date, so guessing that it is 2021).

Glasgow City Region. 2021b.  Home Energy Retrofit Final Report: Next Steps, Home Energy Retrofit Programme, https://invest-glasgow.foleon.com/igpubs/glasgow-greenprint-for-investment/glasgow-city-region-home-energy-retrofit-programme/

Harvie, P. 2022.  Letter from the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights to the Convener , 11 January, Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee,  Scottish Parliament, https://www.parliament.scot/chamber-and-committees/committees/current-and-previous-committees/session-6-local-government-housing-and-planning/correspondence/2022/retrofitting-housing-for-net-zero-january-2022  

LCH. 2021. Pre-COP26, we revisit Glasgow’s retrofit scene, Low Carbon Homes, 24 May,  https://www.lowcarbonhomes.uk/news/retrofit-revisited-glasgow/

Leeds Trades Council. 2020.   Retrofit Leeds homes with high-quality insulation and heat pumps:  a plan and call to  action!, Leeds Trades Council, https://leedstuc.files.wordpress.com/2020/09/draft-document-decarbonising-leeds-homes-with-a-huge-programme-of-deep-retrofitting-and-installation-of-heat-pumps..pdf

Levidow, L.  2022.  Green New Deals: what shapes Green and Deal?,  Capitalism Nature Socialism (CNS), https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2022.2062675  (free download).

LGHPC.  2021. Retrofitting Housing For Net Zero.   Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, 30 November 2021.  Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament. 

PAC. 2021.   Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme.  London: UK Parliament: Public Accounts Committee, https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/127/public-accounts-committee/news/159264/pac-report-green-homes-grant-scheme-underperformed-badly/

Paciaroni, S. 2021.  Springfield Cross: Low carbon social housing project takes shape Glasgow’s East End, Glasgow Times, 8 November, https://www.glasgowtimes.co.uk/news/19701701.springfield-cross-low-carbon-social-housing-project-takes-shape-glasgows-east-end/

Sandlands, D. 2021. Massive’ energy retrofit programme could target over 420,000 homes across Glasgow, Glasgow Live, 11 April,  https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/glasgow-energy-refit-housing-programme-20360138

Scot.E3.  2021.   Briefing #13: The Use & Abuse of Hydrogenhttps://scote3.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/briefing-13.pdf

Source News. 2019.  A Green New Deal for Scotland,  https://sourcenews.scot/a-green-new-deal-for-scotland/

STUC. 2021.  Our Climate: Our Homes.  Scottish Trades Union Congress, https://stuc.org.uk/files/campaigns/Homes/Our-Homes_briefing.pdf

Webb,  J. 2019.  New lamps for old: financialised governance of cities and clean energy, Journal of Cultural Economy 12(4):  286-298.   

Wilson, C. 2021.  COP26: ‘Green’ tenement plan could cut fuel bills by 80%, Herald Scotland, 10 November, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/19705494.cop26-green-tenement-plan-cut-fuel-bills-80/