How Scotland's social housing sector can achieve net zero

The Zero Emissions Social Housing Taskforce has provided key recommendations on how social landlords across Scotland can work together with the Scottish government to achieve its ambitious climate change targets


  • Cassandra Dove

31 January 2022

View of Edinburgh city and Arthur's Seat from above

For Scotland to meet its ambitions of becoming net zero by 2045, over 2m homes will need to transition from fossil fuel-based systems to low-emission and zero-emission systems such as heat pumps, heat networks and other technologies.

However, with over one-third of social housing tenants living in fuel poverty, it is critical that this situation is not made worse by the transition to decarbonised forms of heat; no tenant should be left with unaffordable costs or failing heating systems.

'With over one-third of social housing tenants living in fuel poverty, it is critical that this situation is not made worse by the transition to decarbonised forms of heat'

Zero Emissions Social Housing Taskforce

The Zero Emissions Social Housing Taskforce (ZEST) was established to examine, and make recommendations on, what is required of the social housing sector to maximise its contribution to the Scottish government's climate change targets.

Co-chaired by the Scottish Federation of Housing Association (SFHA), the taskforce was convened in March 2021 by then Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning Kevin Stewart MSP. Stewart invited SFHA Chief Executive Sally Thomas to co-chair ZEST alongside former Chief Executive of Inverclyde Council and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Aubrey Fawcett.

ZEST had a wide-ranging membership, including the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing officers, the Scottish Housing Regulator and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Housing practitioners, architects and academics were also invited to participate alongside representatives from tenant groups, industry and other stakeholders.

Given that changes in new housing developments will be driven by the forthcoming Zero Emissions Heat Standard, existing homes present a significant challenge in the transition to net zero.

Therefore, ZEST focused on the existing social housing sector stock, with early discussions on the need for a fabric first approach (ensuring new or existing homes are as well insulated as possible before considering heating systems) and a clear commitment to a just transition for all tenants.

Other key principles included the need for national leadership in tandem with locally empowered delivery, collaboration, ensuring a focus on outcomes and embedding a regionally sensitive approach.

In developing more detailed recommendations, the taskforce subsequently formed two subgroups: one focusing on cost and affordability and the other on more technical aspects of retrofitting existing stock.

In August 2021, the taskforce outlined its key recommendations in Achieving Net Zero in Social Housing.

Key recommendations

The final report makes overarching recommendations, with supporting actions, about how social landlords, local authorities and the Scottish government can work in partnership to address the dual challenge of achieving net-zero emissions in social housing while keeping energy bills affordable and reducing fuel poverty.

The recommendations call for:

  • social landlords and the Scottish government to agree how to deliver net-zero-emission homes in a fair and just way, including developing clear metrics to measure progress and a programme to address the four drivers of fuel poverty: incomes, energy costs, energy performance and how energy is used in the home 
  • social landlords and national and local government to ensure that tenants have a say and are supported in the journey to achieving net-zero emissions in social housing, including in decisions, design and delivery
  • the Scottish government to ensure there is adequate investment for the social housing sector to achieve net-zero emissions while keeping rents affordable for tenants – this will involve developing a sector capacity assessment to determine the net cost increase of the transition above the current investment cost profile
  • the Scottish government and social landlords to prioritise investment and solutions that reduce heating demand and improve the condition of Scotland’s housing stock as a crucial first step in readying homes for zero-emissions heat and minimising fuel costs
  • all partners involved in the transition to net zero to work collaboratively to develop technical solutions and ensure there are enough skilled workers to deliver these to a high standard. This would involve the creation of an ongoing housing net zero technical steering group to advise on emerging challenges, solutions and strategies. 

Achieving net zero

In terms of what these proposals mean for the sector, ensuring the Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing Two (EESSH2) is aligned with both fuel poverty and net zero objectives will be critical.

At present, homes in the social housing sector are to meet EPC band B rating, or be as energy efficient as practicably possible, within the limits of cost, technology and necessary consent, by December 2032.

Concerns have been raised regarding the appropriateness of this target, and ZEST called for the planned review of EESSH2 to be brought forward to commence immediately, with a final decision on the revised approach and implementation no later than 2023. This would help give greater certainty on the long-term targets for the sector.

Further details can be found in the full report, which has now been presented to Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport Michael Matheson MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government Shona Robison MSP.

The recently published Heat in Buildings Strategy also confirmed that the Scottish government will respond to the proposed recommendations in full in due course.

However, some key developments have already taken place, including a commitment to double the Social Housing Net Zero Heat Fund, making £200m available to social landlords over this parliament.

The Scottish government has also published its response to the recommendations of the Just Transition Commission, setting out a long-term vision for a fairer, greener Scotland, in addition to the final version of the Net Zero Nation public engagement strategy.

However, there is still much to be done, and it is vital that the ZEST report is not viewed as an end point. The recommendations are intended to provide the next steps on how the social housing sector, in partnership with local and national government, the private and third sectors, wider civic society and tenants can contribute to Scotland's net zero ambitions. 

No single organisation, profession or community has all the solutions; successful progress will depend on developing the required solutions together.

Cassandra Dove is policy and research lead at Scottish Federation of Housing Associations
Contact Cassandra: Email


Related competencies include: Housing strategy and provision, Sustainability 

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