In this article, Dr Halima Sacranie (Chair of the Centre for the New Midlands Housing and Communities Leadership Board and Research Lead, Housing and Communities Research Group at the University of Birmingham) considers where we are six months on from COP26 as we manage our way through crises and seek to find the opportunities to deliver on COP26 pledges.
Halima considers the role of ‘circular economic housing models’ in the quest for net zero and delivering social impact alongside fulfilling environmental and economic imperatives.
According to researchers at Harvard Medical School and Ohio State University (2020) there are four stages in our response to a crisis: the heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment, and fatigue stages respectively. The heroic sees us group together in a collective cortisol-fuelled and genetically ingrained fight response; the honeymoon phase is a result of that feel-good initial response where we identify with our community in crisis (Thursday evening clapping for the NHS?); and disillusionment and despair set in as the physical and emotional exhaustion begin to take its toll – particularly as said crisis continues in wave upon wave. Crisis fatigue is the final stage where unsustainable and unrelenting stress and high levels of cortisol and adrenaline result in burnout, withdrawal and feeling physically and emotionally numb.
So where are we on the crisis spectrum 6 months on from Cop26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow? The climate crisis is still the most significant and urgent global threat to our future and one that disproportionally affects the poor and disadvantaged (it literally ‘levels down’ communities). The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPPC, 2022) informs us that the world is failing to make the changes required to reduce carbon emissions. If global warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees it will have catastrophic global consequences. Amidst this climate emergency though, we find ourselves fatigued, dealing with a seemingly unprecedented conflation of interwoven crises with Covid19, the fuel and energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the cost of living crisis exacerbated arguably by on-going Brexit impacts too.
And on the ‘crisis-ometer’, even before these latest geo-political, economic and environmental challenges, ‘the housing crisis’ has been the taken for granted and accepted status quo of the housing market in the UK with regard to affordability, availability and quality of housing. Housing is complex; it is firmly located in the market but inextricably linked to public policy areas, with fiscal and welfare policy interwoven in its fabric (albeit as the ‘wobbly pillar of welfare’), and it’s steeped in the political and cultural ideology of home ownership. Homelessness is the severest manifestation of housing market structural failures. Fuel poverty is experienced at home, while the cost of living includes not only utilities, food and basic necessities, but also the cost of mortgages and rents which take up increasing proportions of household income.
Climate Change and Net Zero Housing
UK Climate Change policy has rightfully focused on housing, where emission reductions from the UK’s 29 million homes have faltered, while energy use in homes, accounting for 14% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions, has increased (CCC, 2019) and “there has been little of the necessary progress in upgrading the building stock” (CCC, 2021). Entrenched in UK legislation, the 2050 net zero carbon homes target (Climate Change Act, 2008) focuses on reducing carbon emissions through alternative heating or energy systems, fuel efficiency and the insulation of buildings. The target for new homes is to produce 75-80% fewer carbon emissions (MHCLG, 2019).
Is, however, the dominant logic around net zero housing, i.e. the energy related performance of homes and operational carbon emissions, self-limiting? It could be argued that being myopic about functional carbon and ignoring the whole life embodied carbon of homes constitutes a missed opportunity to achieve net zero targets sooner, more efficiently and more holistically. Housing construction (of which we know we need much more) has huge environmental impacts. The linear building process of ‘take, make, use, waste’ lead to massive volumes of waste produced and the single-life use of raw and manufactured materials before being demolished or disposed of, compounds embodied carbon emissions. The construction, demolition and excavation (C,D&E) sector is the largest user of materials in the UK and produces the biggest volumes of waste as a percentage of total waste stream (Defra, 2018).
The UK Green Building Council (2019) sets out definitions of two equally important approaches to net zero carbon buildings: (1) ‘Net zero carbon construction’, where the amount of carbon emissions associated with a building’s construction are zero or negative, and (2) ‘net zero carbon operational energy’, when the amount of carbon emissions associated with the building’s operational energy on an annual basis is zero or negative.’
Comparatively “In the UK, the operation of buildings accounts for around 30 per cent of emissions…while for new buildings, the embodied emissions from construction can account for up to half of the carbon impacts associated with the building over its lifecycle.” (UK Green Building Council, 2019)  This concept appears to have had some traction recently with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who has blocked the planned demolition of Oxford Street’s Marks & Spencer because of a report about the potential carbon footprint and the embodied carbon emissions of the proposed new development compared to refurbishing the existing Edwardian building.
Climate change affects the most disadvantaged, as does fuel poverty and the rapidly increasing cost of living. The social housing sector, as a not-for-profit and highly regulated third sector, provides subsidized housing to the most disadvantaged, and housing associations are the main affordable housing developers in this country. This makes them well placed to take the lead on net zero housing, beyond regulatory requirements, and seek to address these critical issues which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society. Over the past few years, in my research interviews with numerous housing associations, future challenges have been unequivocally identified as those relating to net zero targets and decarbonisation of housing stock, as well as resident and community engagement. It seems logical then that the social impacts of the transition to net zero and engaging residents along on that journey are key opportunities to leverage.
Circular Strategies, Engaging Residents and Social Impacts
The circular economy (CE) focuses on minimizing resource inputs and outputs by creating cyclic flows to narrow (resource efficiency), slow (lifetime extension) and close (recycle waste) resource loops (Bocken et al. 2016). While circular economic housing models are being increasingly adopted in the EU, there have been limited public policy or internal drivers in the UK where CE is largely an approach to waste and resource management (DEFRA 2020). Housing associations in the UK could nevertheless consider adopting circular principles for asset renovation and new construction in order to meet their carbon reduction targets.
Since 2019 I have been working at the University of Birmingham as a UK research partner on an ambitious EU Interreg funded project entitled CHARM (Circular Housing Asset & Renovation Management), which applies the principles of the circular economy to social housing exemplars in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the UK respectively, creating guidelines for a circular procurement strategy, as well as material exchange platforms to enable circular flows of materials and building components in the social rented sector. The project aims to prevents downcycling of 36% of materials, which equates to an annual recovery of 40,000 tonnes of material by the project partner housing associations.
In a forthcoming book chapter entitled ‘Towards a Socially Inclusive Circular Economy: A Study of Tenant Engagement in European Social Housing Organisations’  my co-author and I consider the evolving tenant engagement for the CHARM case studies, investigating if this was ‘business as usual’ or if new type of engagement emerged. A question faced by these housing organisations was if their de facto social purpose was providing a high quality social home, should the circular, sustainable features of their home make a visible or tangible difference to the lives of their tenants? While customer approval and knowledge transfer on new component systems was essential, the focus for these sustainable housing projects was on waste reduction and material reuse i.e. their environmental and economic targets.
There is however increasing evidence from circular economic and sustainable housing studies that involving housing tenants and communities in these transitions provides a sense of empowerment and helps embed sustainable values and ethos, and suggests that a more inclusive approach to circular and sustainable housing would reap a range of social benefits.
Our research focused on tenant engagement but there are of course many others socio-economic issues interconnected with climate crisis and housing. Fuel poverty is a pertinent and critical area of social impact, and house retrofits and new affordable reduced carbon developments must take this into account. Another area is local skills training and employment. The vast skills gap in the construction sector around new sustainable housing technologies afford an opportunity for housing associations to invest in skills training and create new jobs in their communities. Indeed, in setting out its broad aspirations the DLUHC’s Levelling Up White Paper (February 2022) suggests these opportunities could be leveraged from the transition to Net Zero, and particularly so for trailblazing regions like the West Midlands.
In a quagmire of conflated crises and with impending net zero targets to achieve, it is understandable that housing associations might adopt a trouble-shooting modus operandi. Emerging from the pandemic, trying to mitigate the damage of the cost of living and fuel crises for their residents, while seeking to decarbonise their existing stock and develop new low carbon homes, all the while engaging meaningfully with their customers and communities is undoubtedly a challenge. Navigating towards innovative and paired up solutions like circular housing strategies to maximise whole life carbon reduction and building in social impact, tenant and community engagement in the quest for net zero can help embed and achieve social impacts alongside fulfilling environmental and economic imperatives. Perhaps we might move from crisis fatigue back to a heroic collective effort to better serve our planet, our region and our communities when it comes to the provision of reduced carbon affordable housing and decarbonising existing housing stock.
 Climate Change Committee, UK Housing Fit for the Future, 2019 –https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/uk-housing-fit-for-the-future/
 Climate Change Committee, Progress in Reducing Emissions, 2021 – https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Progress-in-reducing-emissions-2021-Report-to-Parliament.pdf
 Resources and Waste Strategy, HM Government Londonhttps://www.gov.uk/government/publications/resources-and-waste-strategy-for-england
 Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition UK Green Building Council, 2019 – https://www.ukgbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Net-Zero-Carbon-Buildings-A-framework-definition.pdf
 (Chapter 4 in “Social and Cultural Aspects of the Circular Economy: Toward Solidarity and Inclusivity” Ed. Viktor Pál, Routledge, 2022. ISBN 9781032185804, pre-edited manuscript available on – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357132288_Towards_a_Socially_Inclusive_Circular_Economy_A_Study_of_Tenant_Engagement_in_European_Social_Housing_Organisations?channel=doi&linkId=61bcf59163bbd932429f001c&showFulltext=true)
About Dr Halima Sacranie BAS(Hons) MSc PhD FHEA
Dr Halima Sacranie is the Research Lead of the Housing and Communities Research Group (HCRG) at the University of Birmingham where she completed her PhD at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies in 2012. Since 2013, Halima has undertaken research in housing policy, third sector housing models, tenant engagement and well-being, sustainability in social housing, the role of the private rental sector, community investment and community-led housing. She is currently working on a 4 year European project on the circular economy in social housing.
Halima is also a Research Fellow at Aston Business School where she is working with colleagues on a 2 year project on housing quality and tenant well-being for an English housing association, and is about to embark on another 2 year project with Birmingham City Council and the Gambling Commission on the impact of problem gambling on council tenancy.
Through her research experience, Halima has developed a strong understanding of the housing policy and built environment context in the Midlands, as well as a familiarity with key stakeholders in the range of sectors encompassed by the housing and communities agenda. Beyond her own research group network, Halima is active in other networks including the European Federation for Living and regularly contributes to conference panels and roundtable discussions, recently chairing two House Briefings events on Housing Policy under the New Government and Successfully Engaging Social Housing Residents: Ensuring Voices are Heard.
Safe, affordable and decent housing is a fundamental human need, and housing-related research should aspire to improve the lives of people and strengthen communities, especially for those who are vulnerable, impoverished, struggling or excluded.
In her role as the Housing and Communities Leadership Board Chair at the Centre for the New Midlands, Halima is looking forward to working with Board members and collaborating with policy makers, practitioners and academics to give the Midlands a powerful voice on critical housing and communities issues, through thought leadership, stakeholder engagement and impactful research.