A new role for municipalities

Energy poverty is at the heart of a just energy transition. As we move towards our cities becoming more sustainable, we must ask the questions: who has access to environmental services and who does not? Why is this the case and what can be done about it?

Municipalities hold a unique position in responding to these questions. As democratically elected and publicly accountable organisations, municipalities have responsibility for sustainability, poverty and health issues. These issues come together within, and can be addressed through, work on energy poverty.

This guide explores examples of municipal-led energy poverty work from across Europe and offers inspiration and ideas for replication to anyone with a role in a municipality.

Future Fit Homes?

This guide focuses on the refurbishment of existing dwellings in order to improve their energy performance and reduce overall carbon impacts for those living in energy poverty.

Our definition of a Future Fit Home is informed by the EU Commission’s Renovation Wave for Europe (2020) document that sets out key principles for building renovation between 2030 and 2050, namely: reducing energy demand as a first step; affordability with protection for vulnerable and low income householders; the integration of small scale renewables where possible; whole life cycle thinking and maximising use of low embodied carbon materials; and high health and environmental standards.

To this we add the need to consult and involve end users, householders and tenants in all stages of refurbishment, a key principle of the mPower project and a requirement for the delivery of any high quality and sustainable refurbishment programme.

Energy poverty

Energy poverty[1] is, at its core, about people not having access to basic energy services.

These services could be related to the provision of warmth, cooling, energy for cooking, hot water and access to electricity. The way people experience energy poverty is different in each city and country across Europe. In the UK for example, much of the issue is related to the impact of cold and damp homes on health. In Italy access to electricity is a more pressing concern.

Whilst the EU has made commitments to tackling energy poverty, the lack of a common definition limits options for tracking progress. Estimates of the extent of energy poverty vary widely, with Eurostat finding 31 million Europeans lived in energy poverty in 2021, whilst the EU executive’s own research body found 50 million people in 2019. Change may soon come, with two lawmakers drafting a new definition in early 2022.

Whilst no working definition exists, this document takes energy vulnerability as the focus, to emphasise a person-centred means of understanding energy poverty. Energy vulnerability can be understood through three key aspects, a person’s exposure and sensitivity to energy poverty, and their capacity to adapt.

Exposure to energy poverty includes the building fabric of the home – is it draughty? Is it insulated? Are the windows of good quality? It includes energy costs – have they risen steeply? Are they affordable? And income and income stability are clearly critical. Often single women, or single parents, disabled people and pensioners have a lower income and are therefore more at risk of energy poverty.

A household’s sensitivity to energy poverty includes the health of people in that household – are they old or disabled, or do they have young children? These people are often less able to regulate their temperature and will be more sensitive to a lack of access to energy. A household’s ability to access support from their wider community will also impact their resilience and sensitivity to energy poverty.

The third aspect of energy poverty is a person’s ability or capacity to adapt. For example, tenants have less control over their living environment. If someone has less access to financial resources they will be less able to adapt to energy price rises. If someone has complex or challenging life situations they may be less able to engage in initiatives to support them.

The ways that energy poverty impacts people are diverse. Many people self disconnect or ration the energy they use to cope. In the UK where lack of access to adequate heating is a big issue, people may stay in bed, only heat one room in a house, or visit public buildings during the day to stay warm.

Energy poverty and the resulting lack of basic energy services can have both physical and mental health impacts. Physical health impacts include worse respiratory and cardiovascular health, more accidents and injuries. Mental health impacts include social isolation, stress and anxiety which can lead to further mental health conditions. Poor health will then impact a person’s ability to work – and thus, their income. People may also ration food and lighting. Children may struggle at school and be unable to do homework in a difficult home environment. All of these consequences of energy poverty have an impact on personal and household wellbeing.

By understanding energy poverty from the perspective of people experiencing it municipalities will be better able to design more effective programmes. [Link to mPower activate work]

[1] Often referred to as fuel poverty in the UK

Social benefits from social justice

While there is a clear social justice imperative to tackling energy poverty, recent mPower work has shown that there are also a number of co-benefits for municipal institutions and organisations.

Hospitals and health institutions are an obvious beneficiary to reducing energy poverty, as improved access to energy services leads to better health. However there are also benefits to educational institutions as children will be able to engage better in their education, to employers as workers take fewer sick days, energy companies as fewer people default on their energy bills, to landlords as a retrofitted homes have less turnover and fewer rent arrears, and lower energy demand (through energy efficiency works) will benefit the power network.

It is clear that by taking a holistic view, tackling energy poverty at a municipal level is good for health institutions, for the local economy, for its citizens and for the just transition.

Municipal role

Municipalities are well placed to tackle energy poverty through household energy efficiency improvement schemes. In developing this guide, we have identified examples of cities developing new strategies that spell out the municipalities’ approach to tackling energy poverty. A focus on practical action also emerged. Some municipalities provide public information to help make small scale energy efficiency improvements to their homes. Financial incentives are offered to encourage uptake. In others end-to-end energy efficiency renovation support is offered, where the municipality takes responsibility for managing the work from engagement through to install.

mPower – by municipalities for municipalities

Running between 2018 and 2022, mPOWER is a Horizon 2020 project facilitating a peer-to-peer learning programme among more than a hundred European local public authorities, designed to replicate innovative best practices in municipal energy, and developing ambitious energy transition plans.

This guide was developed in collaboration with municipal officers participating in the mPower Exchange programme and is relevant for anyone with a role within a municipality.

In 2019–2020, twenty cities from across Europe took part in mPower Exchange. Structured around city visits, it enabled local authorities to spend face-to-face time exploring, understanding and developing new and existing energy projects. This highly participatory learning programme was focused on exchanging practical knowledge and expertise. The themes were domestic energy efficiency, local energy communities and renewables expansion.

This guide shares the knowledge and expertise of those city innovators. Whilst no single project can be replicated in full elsewhere, we believe other cities can draw inspiration from these experiences to create solutions suited to local context and conditions.

1. Strategy

Developing municipal strategies to support local energy poverty projects.

Strategy development: Plymouth and Nottingham, UK

Innovative research by Plymouth and Nottingham Councils highlights the need to focus energy efficiency schemes on the most vulnerable.

Photo Credit: Dom Moore

Plymouth City Council and Nottingham City Council are at the leading edge of work on fuel poverty and retrofit in the UK. Their recent programmes have taken innovative approaches, ensuring good customer experience, quality retrofit and local economic benefits. Their first hand experience of local authority-led retrofit delivery has highlighted some key issues in ensuring those most vulnerable can access retrofit programmes.

The mPower Activate project, a project incubator that enabled mPower Exchange participants to seed new projects, focuses on finding solutions to this challenge. Plymouth and Nottingham city councils worked together within mPower Activate to investigate ways to mobilise a wider stakeholder pool to support appropriate energy retrofit for the households most in need.

Knowing Plymouth

Photo Credit: Inspired Images on Pixabay

Plymouth is a city of 260,000 inhabitants in the county of Devon, Southwest England. Located on a large natural harbour, the city has long been one of the country’s most important ports. Its manufacturing sector and the harbour – once a transit port for migration to the Americas – still dominate the city’s economy and landscape. In recent decades, the city has faced a number of challenges: declining productivity, falling wages, and increasing poverty and inequality. The dockyard that once employed tens of thousands of people now only employs 2,500.

Citizens have experienced an erosion of economic stability, exacerbated by severe cuts in government spending on social support.  In some areas the child poverty rate is 40%. There are districts where 35% or residents live in fuel poverty, which in turn impacts mental and physical health and worsens stress, including financial stress as people face unmanageable debts. Mental health in the city is poor and there is a high suicide rate.

Nottingham’s approach

Photo Credit: Arran Bee on Flickr

Nottingham is a historic English city in the East Midlands region with about 331,000 inhabitants and a wide range of sporting and cultural venues. The city and its Council have made headlines in recent years for leadership and innovation around the low-carbon and energy agendas.

Building on recent successes, the City Council declared a climate and ecological emergency, and set a nationally leading target to reach sustainable carbon neutrality by 2028, 22 years before the nation-wide goal. To reach this ambitious target, the Council has been taking bold steps: it introduced a levy on workplace parking spaces to help fund the expansion of a low-carbon tram network, continues to engage citizens in a year of carbon neutral thinking and the ongoing development of their 2028 Carbon Neutral Action Plan, and is committed to planting 50,000 new trees.

In Nottingham, energy poverty affects around 15% of households. In 2018 the Council made tackling energy poverty one of their top five priorities for Council-led action. Their five year strategy commits ‘to reduce energy bills, increase thermal comfort and well-being in the coldest and most vulnerable homes and to improve Nottingham City’s Fuel Poverty rate.’

Centrally-run programmes miss the most vulnerable

Existing home energy efficiency schemes in the UK are structured on the basis of delivering the most interventions for the lowest cost. Interventions are procured in bulk and not personalised. More costly and complicated interventions miss out on funding. This means that harder to treat properties, and households with complex needs, are disfavoured because intervention for them is more difficult and expensive. Local Authorities could see this often meant that those suffering the most due to their housing conditions were least likely to benefit from schemes.

Nottingham City Council and Plymouth City Council have worked collaboratively to investigate how they can change things to deliver whole-house retrofit to those most vulnerable. They argue there need to be fundamental changes to the way that current programmes are delivered.

This change would involve increased support for those most vulnerable through trusted independent advice, an incentive mechanism that rewards a holistic approach over a cost savings approach, and more sustainable, longer-term finance mechanisms, something that has been elusive to date in the UK. 

To confront this issue, Plymouth and Nottingham wanted to increase the potential of local partnerships of stakeholders. Where co-benefits of retrofit exist, these stakeholders might be able to collaborate, potentially opening up access to more sustainable long-term finance.

To support this partnership model, the mPower Activate group saw value in developing a person-centred approach to ensure the co-benefits were realised. Dr Alice Jones was commissioned to investigate this, and a report was published in December 2021.

Credit: Credit: Dr Alice Jones

The report showed that collaboration could be through local anchor networks with other local institutions like the hospitals, energy system operators, employers and educational institutions. Through these networks the most vulnerable can be better targeted, and those institutions that benefit from retrofit can contribute financially with more stability to support for Local Authorities providing services. Positive impacts would not only be on social imperatives like fuel poverty but on the local economy, the energy system, health institutions, and education.

Edited from text provided by Justin Bear, Plymouth City Council, Jonathan Ward, City of Nottingham & Activate project blog series

Decisions by consensus: Cadiz, Spain

Cadiz launches an Energy Poverty Committee to shape local policy.

Photo Credit: Alberto Racatumba on Flickr

As in many other Spanish cities, two new left parties took over the local government of Cádiz in May 2015. The city faced many economic and social problems such as high levels of debt and unemployment. The council’s energy management was inefficient, there was no commitment to renewable energy, and nothing had been done to reduce energy poverty in recent years.

Opening up the local energy transition for democratic debate has been a focus of Cadiz’s energy transition work. One problem that urgently needed to be tackle was energy poverty. Spain faces high levels of energy poverty: 15% of the population live in homes that are not adequately heated, often because their power has been cut off due to unpaid bills. However, only a few large energy companies benefit from government energy grants to support low-income families. The programme does not apply to low-income customers of smaller suppliers.

Cádiz Award

Photo Credit: Municipality of Cadiz

In October 2015, the municipal government unanimously approved something the citizen movement had been calling for: a social discount that would reduce the cost of energy for vulnerable families. Within the proposal a commitment to co-producing the social discount through an open process was included.

The Energy Poverty Committee (EPC) provides a permanent open space where civil society organisations, energy specialists, the department of social affairs of the municipality, political parties, people affected by energy poverty, and employees of Eléctrica de Cádiz and the city council can make consensus-based decisions on the direction of the cities energy poverty work.

To design the social discount, a participatory round table organising around consensus-based decision making met for three years. The outcome of this participatory process was the launch of a grant, the Alternative Social Bonus, that Eléctrica de Cádiz could offer its customers. The grant not only cuts bills for those facing financial challenges, but takes into account individual households’ specific energy needs.

A team including social workers and technicians help to identify the level of municipal financed energy grant for each vulnerable customer, which is included on the public company’s energy invoice. This discount is expected to guarantee access to energy for more than 2,000 families each year.

Alongside the financial support the programme also provides training in energy management. The aim is to work with vulnerable families to prevent them getting into a situation of  late payment, and late payment fees, from the outset. The Alternative Social Bonus  has wide public support.

Unemployed people have also been hired and trained as energy advisers who give households advice on their energy contracts to help them save money, via home visits and run public energy workshops. They also help households with minor repairs to improve their quality of life.

The roundtable is such an effective tool for participation because “people come because they see that we build the things that they want us to build” says journalist Alba del Campo who helped to set up and run the committees. “It’s not just talking about talking, we make them happen.”

Edited from text and podcast interview provided by Alba del Campo, Municipality of Cadiz

2. Information and advice

Knowledge and tools to help householders address small scale energy efficiency issues.

Energy Saving Kits: Dublin, Ireland

Award winning energy saving toolkit from Dublin’s Energy Agency, Codema.

Photo Credit: Giuseppe Milo on Flickr

In Dublin, the local Energy Agency Codema developed a new approach to sharing energy efficiency improvement knowledge and advice that achieved an EU sustainable energy award.

Codema was set up in 1997 by Dublin City Council and plays a pivotal role in supporting the four local councils that make up the capital city with their low-carbon transition. Codema’s mission is to bring about a better quality of life for all citizens through a fair and inclusive transition. Community engagement is a unifying thread in its work. Experience has  shown the value of bringing together engineers and communicators to find the best solutions, with mapping emerging as a favourite technique. Community values and priorities play an equal role alongside technical and financial considerations  in developing strategies.

In 2013, Dublin Council wanted to find a way to share knowledge of how small practical actions can make a difference in saving energy. People are aware of the importance of energy-saving, but the technical nature of the topic often leaves them feeling lost. The Council hoped it could find an easy and engaging way to skill up citizens to make changes themselves. They contracted Codema to run a campaign to address the issue.

Photo Credit: Codema

Alongside a year-long set of events and energy ambassador training sessions, the team created ‘energy-saving kits’ that are loaned out by Dublin’s public libraries. Inside the kits, citizens can find a whole host of energy-saving gadgets. The kit contents include thermometers that show the temperature differences between walls, windows and ceilings, plug-in energy monitors and humidity sensors. Easy to follow online videos and info sheets guide users through the kit. Each kit cost Euro 250 – the were financed by Codema and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) library network.

Photo Credit: Codema

The borrowers found the kits to be useful. In a follow-up survey 86% of respondents reported that using the Home Energy Saving Kit made them  think about how they use energy in the home, and they saw an 13% reduction in energy after one year.

Codema CEO Donna Gartland explained that the quality of communication was what had made this project such a success in her view :

‘One of the important things that we’ve learned is [to have] engineers working with the communications team. It’s great having all the technology, but the trick is all about how you translate it and make it accessible.’

Photo Credit: Codema

The project made it onto the European stage when it won the EU Sustainability Award in 2017. Codema were then commissioned to roll out the initiative across Ireland’s libraries. The tool has found a new audience through schools, community groups and nursing homes who use the kits as an education tool. Demand for the kits has not dwindled. The kits don’t wait around in the libraries for long, with a waiting list in place for many of them.

Edited from mPower podcast interview with Donna Gartland, Codema

Finance Impact More information & sources
  • €250 per kit
  • Financed by Codema and the SEAI library network
  • Householders reported a 13% reduction in energy consumption after one year

Right to Energy: Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain

Barcelona sets-up energy advice points and home intervention service.

Picture < Credit: Bert Kaufmann on Flickr

Both regionally and locally in Barcelona, the municipality is working on energy empowerment through advice and support, to ensure energy rights. The city is creating also green job opportunities for the long term unemployed as a means of working toward social equity through the green transition.

Barcelona Provincial Council is funding work with town councils across the region to support homes experiencing energy poverty with energy audits and intervention[1].The programme involves energy advisors making home visits to support people in energy poverty to reduce their bills and be more energy efficient.

Key activities include:

  • In home energy audits
  • Installation of low cost energy efficiency measures
  • Support to lower bills through adjustments to utility contracts
  • Training to support consumer behaviour changes around energy consumption.[2]

Reducing energy poverty is a political objective for Barcelona City Council. The council has created 11 Energy Advice Points (PAE) across the city, as a free municipal service underpinned with strong social responsibility values[3] . The focus is on energy and housing rights and these are upheld through  PAE’s and through providing job opportunities to vulnerable groups.

The public service offers:

  1. Defence of energy rights and improvement of energy efficiency through:
    • Information on energy rights at eleven PAE service points
    • Personalised energy advice service
    • Home intervention service
  2. Promotion of employment through:
    • Employing 32 long term unemployed people to become energy advisors enabling peer-to-peer support.
    • A yearly green professionals programme that supports 20 professionals via training and employment programme to re-enter the job market with increased skills and experience.
  3. Prevention and community action (via community workshops)

After a successful pilot in 2017, the city decided to continue the programme and make access to information on energy rights a free public service.

Edited from text provided by Rafael Moreno Pérez, Barcelona Energy Agency and research conducted by Aneaka Kellay


Energy Advice Points (PAE)

  • €2,250,000 / year
  • Financed by Barcelona City Council

Audits and intervention in homes experiencing energy poverty

  • €500,000
  • Financed by Barcelona Provincial Council


Audits and intervention in homes experiencing energy poverty

  • 5,000 energy audits
  • 2,000 actions to utility contracts
  • Utility bills reduced by 19% and saved 225 euros/year/home
  • Set up 23,000 free energy efficiency measures

Energy Advice Points (PAE)
Every month the service:

  • Advises 2500 citizens
  • Regularise 50 supplies
  • Protect the rights of 600 citizens though the city’s radical right to housing law[4]
  • Saves 100kW of electrical power

More information

2.3 Citizen Assistance: Valencia, Spain

Valencia sets up an energy advice service in a neighbourhood where one in four live in energy poverty.

Photo Credit: Ebroslu on Pixabay

Located on the east coast of Spain, Valencia is the third-largest city in the country and capital of the Valencian region. Since signing the Covenant of Mayors declaration in 2009, the city has established the Valencia Climate and Energy Foundation, which develops and delivers strategies, actions and tools to help achieve its targets. Work to improve the living situation of their citizens is embedded within their programmes, which have a focus on fuel poverty prevention and the right to energy. València has reduced its energy consumption by 17.9% and greenhouse gas emissions by 30.9% in the last 12 years and was recently nominated one of six top innovators in the European Capital of Innovation 2020 competition.

The Energy Office is based in the Ayora area of the city, where one in four people live in fuel poverty. An old shop was transformed to create a place where anyone can come in and meet trained staff to discuss energy issues. An environmental educator, social worker, architect and engineer all work there, advising on subsidies and small scale measures to improve household energy, and giving energy bill advice and renewable energy information. Social services also refer households to the  service, providing a direct line between vulnerable households and the energy support services.

The next big project for Valencia is the EU funded ‘Save the Homes’ programme. They aim to create a Regional Network of Integrated Housing Rehabilitation [Energy Retrofit] Services Offices to advise citizens on the entire retrofit process. The team behind the Energy Office will play a leading role in bringing together the consortium working on this project including, Valencia City Council representatives, General Council of Associations of Property Administrators of the Valencian Community and the Generalitat Valencian, through the Valencian Building Institute (IVE).

Edited from podcast interview featuring Carmen Castells, Valencia Energy Office, Indertec-Imedes and Fernando González

Finance Impact More information & sources
  • €120,000
  • Financed by municipal budget
  • 223 people reached

Empower women: Vlora, Albania

A female-focused approach to energy engagement in Vlora.

Photo Credit: John Quine on Flickr

Vlora is one of seven cities in Europe taking part in EmpowerMEd, a five year Horizon 2020 project aimed to empower women in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean to help tackle energy poverty.

In recognition that women and female-led households bear the greater burden of energy poverty, this project specifically targets women to support them to take practical action against energy poverty. The project started in 2019 and will be complete in 2023.

The concept of energy poverty in Vlora is not defined and there is no monitoring of it. The  lack of data on energy poverty is one reason the problem remains invisible to policy makers.

This is the key focus of EmpowerMed in Vlora.

Lack of data is a significant issue and the municipality is working to address this. Some data gathered shows that more than a third of households in Vlora are not regularly paying their energy bills and on average consume a fifth less energy than the minimum consumed at a national level. This indicates energy poverty is a significant issue in the city.

The first step for the municipality is to identify those most vulnerable and assess their needs, then set an approach to engage those identified.

The approach to engaging vulnerable groups will involve training energy advisors, establishing rapport with families in the area, hosting workshops, investigating buildings and how this impacts households meeting their basic needs. The project will work with partners including local NGOs, volunteers in the Roma community, and universities.

Edited from research conducted by Aneaka Kellay

Finance More information & sources
  • Budget: (for the whole programme in 7 cities) €1m
  • Funding from Horizon 2020

Skilling up: Križevci, Croatia

Križevci trains up 13 long-term unemployed residents as energy advisors.

The Croatian city of Križevci is becoming a national pioneer in the fight for clean energy and against energy poverty. Located not far from the capital Zagreb in central Croatia, the municipality is home to about 21,000 people, half of whom live in the city itself and half in the surrounding rural areas.

Križevci is the first Croatian city to implement a crowdfunded renewable energy project, making it a beacon in the country, with many others now looking at how to replicate Križevci’s success.

To tackle energy poverty in the city, in 2016 the administration trained 13 long-term unemployed residents as energy advisors. The advisors visited households struggling with energy poverty and supplied them with equipment that would help them save energy, such as LED bulbs, window seals, extension cords with switches and water pipe and shower-head extensions to reduce the water flow. They also advised the households on easy-to-implement energy-saving behaviours.

As a result of this innovative pilot project, each of the 508 households was able to save approximately €70 or 30kWh annually, leading to a reduction of 16,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

Edited from text provided by Lucija Gudić and Danijel Šaško, municipality of Križevci

Impact More information & sources
  • 508 households reached
  • Householder saving of €70 or 30 kWh annually
  • 16,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year

3. Incentives and finance

Channelling the sun: Porto Torres, Italy

Porto Torres pilots an innovative solar project which lowers the energy bills of those on a low income and creates a revolving fund to continuously expand the scheme.

Photo Credit: Gianni Careddu on Wikipedia Commons

Porto Torres is situated in north west Sardinia, Italy with a population of 22,000, it is a port town, first established by Romans in the 1st century BC.

In 2017 Porto Torres piloted an innovative scheme in which they installed solar PV panels on citizen’s homes, free of charge, starting with those on the lowest income. Any energy used by citizens is money they save on their energy bill. Any energy that is exported to the grid is recycled into a revolving fund to enable more solar installations.

While this project needed a significant upfront cost of €500,000, the self financing mechanism is expected to build the reach of the project as it progresses. The scheme has proved so successful that after two years the Italian Government decided to replicate the scheme at a national level.

Edited from research conducted by Aneaka Kellay

Finance Impact More information & sources
  • Budget: €500,000
  • Source: Municipality of Porto Torres
  • In 2019 Porto Torres had installed 50 solar PV systems, leading to €9,000 of bill savings for vulnerable citizens, and reducing CO2 emissions by 65 tonnes.

Barrio Solar: Zaragoza, Spain

A solar initiative with the aim ‘to facilitate access to more efficient, renewable, local and supportive energy, also promoting inclusion and environmental culture’.

Photo Credit: Caccamo on Wikipedia Commons

Zaragoza is the fifth largest city in Spain, and is located in the north. Energy poverty in Spain has risen faster than any other European country in recent years, due to rising gas prices. More than 1 in 10 Spaniards have been unable to keep their home warm in 2020.

Zaragoza is home to ECODES, a non-profit organisation fighting to reduce energy poverty. Barrio Solar is a social and environmental initiative promoted by ECODES, EDP and Zaragoza City Council.

Barrio Solar is a ‘solar neighbourhood’ in which there are two solar installations with a combined power of 100kWp. Businesses and homes that are within 500m of the installations are able to use the solar energy directly without having to install solar on their own buildings or change their electricity supplier.

Those that use the scheme save around 30% of their energy costs. To ensure all can access the scheme fairly they ensure 10% of energy generated goes directly to those in energy poverty. There are monthly fees for accessing the scheme, but those in energy poverty do not have to pay.

Barrio Solar has created a community space to engage the hyper local community. The space is used to hold workshops and run advice points and participatory processes relating to solar energy, energy empowerment and sustainability.

Edited from research conducted by Aneaka Kellay

Finance Impact More information & sources
  • Budget: between €100,000 and €1m
  • Private funds from the Fundación EDP, Schneider Electric Foundation
  • Aims to involve 200 citizens, including 20 who experience energy poverty.

4. End-to-end services

High-rise renovation: Portsmouth, UK

Portsmouth Council retrofits council-owned multi story estate.

Photo Credit: Mike McBey on Flickr

In 2013, Portsmouth City Council undertook an ambitious full regeneration of Wilmcote House, an 11 storey high 1960s concrete prefabricated housing block. It contains 107 units: 100 three-bedroom maisonettes, and seven one bedroom ground floor flats. The council is the building owner, acting as a housing provider.

Photo Credit: Portsmouth City Council

The Council was initially motivated to change the building because of residents’ complaints about high energy bill costs and also the temperatures in some flats. Research monitoring temperatures in individual flats showed that despite the high energy bills, people were not heating their homes to a high enough temperature. The council saw this as evidence of people living in fuel poverty.

The Council decided to renovate the blocks focusing on social outcomes. The core aims were fuel poverty reduction, health improvements and reduction in rent arrears. Equally importantly, the council involved the residents in the process as much as possible.

In the lead up to the building works Portsmouth City Council carried out intensive engagement to gain the resident’s views on the potential plans. They used newsletters, community events, and door-knocking to communicate with residents. One very effective engagement tool was the show-flat, a demonstration home that had had all the energy efficiency works carried out. This allowed the residents to visualise and scrutinise the planned works and provide clear feedback. The city council made some amendments to the final designs from this process, including ways to address expensive electric heating systems and create a new space for drying clothes.

Photo Credit: Portsmouth City Council

Portsmouth decided to appoint a Resident Liaison Officer at project kick-off to act as the first port of call for the tenants. Their role focused on carrying out a community consultation as the work developed and providing one-to-one support to the householders. At the end-of- work residents survey, tenants commented on how much they valued the Officer’s support. In hindsight, Portsmouth Council felt that the Residents Liaison Officer could have played an even bigger role, with more active engagement on-site to represent the tenant’s views to the builders when issues emerged.

The municipality wanted to ensure renovation works were done to a high quality standard so that the building would have a ‘future proofed’ standard of energy performance, resilience and sustained comfort and health for the tenants. They chose to build to the EnerPHit standard, a very rigorous energy efficiency standard. Despite some difficulties onsite, aiming for this standard drove a higher quality of work through the renovation. The work was financed entirely by Portsmouth City Council, without national or private investment, giving the municipality more control over the full process.

Photo Credit: Portsmouth City Council

The results of the work in Portsmouth are impressive. The project community impact analysis, completed by the London School of Economics, found that energy bills had fallen by £700 per year. The residents felt that the flats were significantly warmer and reported a good opinion of the Council because of this project.

From the Council’s point of view, it was a big learning curve in home energy efficiency. Portsmouth has since launched, Switched on Portsmouth, which provides services and support for private tenants, council tenants, housing association tenants, homeowners and landlords.

Edited from Steve Groves mPower expert witness session

Impact More information & sources
  • £700 per year energy bills saving
  • Improved comfort
  • Municipal-tenant relationships strengthened

Embedding quality: Plymouth, UK

A pioneering collaboration between a community social enterprise and city council, has led to innovative work to tackle fuel poverty in Plymouth.

Photo Credit: Inspired Images on Pixabay

Foundations for energy efficiency

In 2014, Plymouth City Council supported the set-up of Plymouth Energy Community (PEC), a new community benefit society. The organisation is owned by its members and runs for the benefit of the community. Its aim is to increase local ownership of energy infrastructure and undertake projects to support households that are excluded from the energy system through fuel poverty.

PEC runs a comprehensive service with ten advisors who apply a multi-skilled, person-centred approach. The advisors support renters, social housing tenants, householders and landlords to improve energy efficiency via home visits, community workshops and training sessions. Advisors receive an extensive training program, including suicide prevention and conflict resolution, to prepare them for work in vulnerable communities.

The support offered includes:

  • Energy advice
  • Help with heating controls
  • Boiler replacements
  • Support to make simple changes
  • Work with energy suppliers to help residents with utility bills
  • Support tenants to speak with landlords and social housing providers about housing condition issues.
  • Support access to government grants for insulation and solar PV

To help advisors with their work, PEC commissioned Carbon Co-op, an energy services cooperative, to create a simple home energy tool for their team of assessors to deliver in a two-hour home visit. The tablet-based web tool enables trained staff to quickly and simply assess the need for basic but effective home energy improvements, including airtightness work, low flow showerheads and new LED lighting. Development of the tool was as part of an ERDF-funded project.

Photo Credit: Carbon Coop

The assessment service is aimed at householders living in fuel poverty, and as such, the improvements recommended are free or low cost. As part of the visit, assessors can also carry out simple improvement works.

The team also delivers other fuel poverty programmes to a wide range of people in the city and surrounding area, including Warm And Well, a programme designed to tackle fuel poverty for those living with a disability, and the national Warm Homes Fund that mainly helps with new heating systems for people in fuel poverty.

Local control to secure quality in deep retrofit

While government grants for energy efficiency measures have been available in the UK to address energy vulnerability for some time, there are often issues with how those funds are spent, and the quality of resulting works and the impact on householders. PEC drew on its experiences running the energy advice service to develop a different way of working with both householders and installers

Usually local authorities in the UK create an agreement with one or possibly two or three large national installers who then manage most of the programme. This is a simpler method for local authorities because of their resource constraints. However, it means the small number of large national installers have a lot of power in the process and there have been issues around customer satisfaction and quality of work. In addition the local economy does not benefit as a majority of the funding goes to a national company.

PEC decided to change this dynamic. They wanted the funds available in the municipality to go directly to the householder. The householder would then choose an installer from a list of small local businesses vetted by PEC. PEC engaged with 13 local installers, who were not usually involved in delivering grant funded work. PEC supported householders to understand works and choose their installers, by providing Retrofit Advisor and Retrofit Coordinator services.

The greater power given to the householder through this way of organising led to much higher levels of customer satisfaction. This in turn is important in engaging the wider community in energy efficiency works.

Edited from Laura Williams mPower study visit notes to Plymouth in June

Finance More information & sources

Advice Service

  • £400,000 in 2021
  • Energy Redress Funding, National Lottery, Western Power Distribution, Warm Homes Fund, Plymouth City Council.

Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery scheme

  • £158,000 revenue
  • £1.1m capital
  • National government funding via Plymouth City Council

5. Reading List

Retrofit for All Toolkit

How to centre energy-vulnerable clients in the design of energy efficiency schemes

City stories podcast

Dr. Lucie Middlemiss about energy poverty in cities