Retrofitting our economic approach in a time of climate emergency, Sarah Longlands

NEWS this week (here) from the Climate Change Committee – the independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 – that the UK Government is struggling to meet its own climate targets was another reminder of just how desperately serious the situation on climate emergency has become. 

For us at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), whilst the environmental impacts of the climate emergency are having a significant impact – both in the UK and internationally – at its heart this is an economic crisis which will only be addressed through radical systemic change.   

This is why the recent consultation on community wealth-building in Scotland (here, which ended on May 9) is so important, because it is an explicit acknowledgement from the Scottish Government that change must come. 

Not just in terms of climate adaption but in the rewiring of our local economies. A re-calibration of priorities away from a focus on growth for growth’s sake and towards seeing human development and wellbeing at the heart of our future economic strategy at the regional and local level. 

At CLES, as one of the originators of community wealth-building (here), we are putting the climate emergency at the forefront of our work because we think we have a responsibility to help people understand how economic change can help to address the climate emergency as well as delivering a better quality of life for citizens.  

We’ve been exploring how local economic change in the south of Scotland could play a role in helping to address climate change. 

Our work explored the potential of a community wealth-building approach to the energy transition, through retrofit.

We worked with a partnership of registered social landlords (RSLs), across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders – alongside their partners at South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) – to explore how we can find new ways to work together to reshape how local economies operate so as to prioritise better outcomes for place. 

Our research (which you can find, here) showed that a community wealth approach could provide opportunities to challenge ownership and create jobs while also addressing the climate emergency and rising fuel bills. 

This project also showed the applicability of community wealth-building in a rural context.  

The Scottish Government have set the bar high (here) when it comes to the decarbonisation of housing stock as part of its objectives to achieve net zero by 2045 (five years before the UK’s target). 

RSLs have been specifically tasked with raising the bar on housing improvements with strict regulatory standards being place on the energy efficiency of their stock.   

Housing forms a significant part of the total carbon footprint in the UK, with the country’s 29 million home generating an estimated 40 per cent of total carbon emissions (as reported, here). 

The challenge of addressing this carbon footprint is made more difficult by the fact that the UK has some of the oldest and most thermally inefficient homes in Europe.  

Retrofit (as CLES has considered, here) provides the means to improve the thermal efficiency of a home in several ways, including improving insulation, connecting homes through district heating schemes and installing new forms of central heating, such as heat pumps. 

Improving homes is good for the climate but it also helps address the interlined challenges of comfort and cost and this is particularly pertinent in the context of a cost-of-living crisis and fuel poverty, especially in rural areas. 

And without additional government support, these areas are at particular risk of falling further behind urban areas which benefit from more buoyant labour markets and developed supply chains.

Community wealth-building can help provide a means to think differently about retrofit, not just a a means to transform housing but as part of a wider conversation about how we can reshape local economic change and, in doing so, ensure that wealth circulates in the public interest and can help to generate real and lasting benefits for people, place and the planet.  

In the south of Scotland, RSLs recognise the collaborative value of their economic power. 

Individually, they have a significant role to play in their local places through their ownership of assets, employment and spending power. But, together, that power is magnified many times over giving them real economic heft which they can choose to mobilise to create the critical mass required to build the skills, well-paid jobs, supply chain and local business base to help turbo-charge the retrofit economy in the south of Scotland. 

In partnership with the think tank, IPPR North, we estimated (here) that, with the right investment, this could help release more than 2,200 jobs directly by 2030, helping to generate £112m for the local economy. 

As the Climate Change Committee pointed out, two years ago (here), we haven’t got any time to waste. 

With support from Holyrood and a commitment at the local level for organisations like housing association to work together, areas like the south of Scotland can lead from the front. 

This is about building a retrofit economy which would not only help to deliver improvements in the quality of social housing stock but which could help raise the bar on housing more generally, in private ownership and in the private rented sector. 

In doing so, this could help to generate local jobs, investment and business development which in turn, can help support the future of local places. 

Done right, retrofit could mitigate against the worst effects of fuel poverty, tackle climate change and kickstart the labour market in the communities that need it most.

Sarah Longlands is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

She is to be the fourth guest interviewee in a weekly series of webinars being hosted by She is taking questions on Wednesday, July 12, from midday. Soon enough, these webinars (and accompanying archive) will be exclusive to members – sign up here.

Pictured: Burnmouth, Berwickshire, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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