Integrated planning for net zero – West Midlands Retrofit case study

As part of our Integrated planning for net zero series, we’re taking a look at the Net Zero Neighbourhoods programme in the West Midlands. This case study was written as part of our research for Connected Places Catapult.

The challenge

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is aiming to be net zero by 2041 across the West Midlands. To meet this goal, the region needs to retrofit more than 294,000 homes across all housing tenures by 2026. All seven of the local authorities within the WMCA are strong on targets, with most aiming for 2041 or earlier, but they are less clear on how they’re going to deliver net zero. There are several reasons for this, all of which are true for local authorities across the country:

  1. Years of austerity have shrunk local authority budgets and resources for sustainability, and they are only starting to re-build this capacity now. Each local authority in the West Midlands tends to have small teams working on their plan for a net zero neighbourhood but it’s a huge remit.
  2. The supply chains for delivering net zero are currently very fragmented. A net zero neighbourhood will need, for example, suppliers to install electric vehicle (EV) charging points, heat pumps and insulation. At the moment, local authorities have to go to individual contractors for each, which is expensive and will also mean disrupting residents multiple times to carry out works.
  3. The current funding model is not flexible enough. There’s funding from central government for local authorities to use on very specific retrofit measures, but not for the platforms and supply chains that will make it happen.

A person wearing protective gloves is kneeling on the floor installing pink, fully wall insulation

From strategy to action on retrofit

The initial proposal for the Net Zero Neighbourhoods programme came directly from WMCA and was developed with local authorities, based on the different challenges they’re facing.

WMCA has invested £2 million into the programme. Each of the seven local authorities in the region has been given funding and planning guidance from WMCA to identify and plan a net zero neighbourhood. One or two neighbourhoods will then be chosen to act as demonstrator projects, with the remaining £2 million to be spent on capital works within them.

Consultants are being appointed by each local authority to analyse the neighbourhood (housing stock, transport, energy infrastructure, local assets and the communities living there) to define what improvements and investments it needs to support the regional net zero target.

The next step is then working out what the different delivery phases would be in that neighbourhood. And underpinning both stages of this approach is long-term community engagement.

Although there’s broad agreement that a place-based, neighbourhood approach makes sense as a way to tackle the challenges posed by the need to retrofit so many homes, this is not how the combined authority and local authorities have traditionally worked. Rather than each department having its own strategy for, say, ‘net zero housing’ or ‘net zero transport’, the directors of different departments have had to work together on the plans for net zero neighbourhood.

Although there’s a strong housing angle to the programme, Net Zero Neighbourhoods isn’t just a retrofit programme. Changing residents’ transport habits, and driving behaviour change more broadly, are also key.

A white man with a face mask is walking past a living green wall with the slogan 'greening up construction, one wall at a time'

Outcomes

The Net Zero Neighbourhoods programme is still in the planning stages but creating the programme has brought together a lot of people from across the region who don’t usually work together, widening the scope of the discussion. The expected outcomes of the programme are:

  • more knowledge sharing; informally through working groups and, more formally, through the resources being created by the Net Zero Neighbourhoods Delivery Manager to support things being done to benefit the whole region
  • more cost-effective delivery models for retrofit, through the place-based approach
  • a regional funding model for retrofit that includes residents who are able to pay
  • a better uptake rate for carrying out retrofit measures in all housing tenures.

Lessons for others

Accept that there are trade-offs. A place-based approach is going to take longer because of the number of stakeholders involved. But it means you get buy-in for the project from more people at the outset, and you can deliver solutions that are targeted to the particular needs of different neighbourhoods.

Encourage innovation. As a small organisation with a relatively small budget, the WMCA needs to think creatively. Having an ‘innovation mindset’, thanks to a mayor and an organisational culture that supports this, has made it easier to test out a new approach.

Set aside more of the budget for evaluation. To prove the value of an integrated approach. There needs to be bigger budgets for evaluation and more evidence sharing from programmes across the sector.

Next steps

WMCA is currently in programme kick off mode. In the next six to eight months, the local authorities will submit their plans and the WMCA will choose which one or two neighbourhoods will be the demonstrator projects for the programme.

For the full version of this case study, including key lessons learned check out Connected Places Catapult’s full report.

If you’re interested in Future of London carrying out research for your project, email Hannah Gibbs.