The UK housing crisis, not only a social problem but an environmental one as well

By Thomas Roberts

The housing market in the UK is changing. Currently, 63% of UK households are owner occupied, 19% are privately rented and 18% are social rented (both local authority and housing association properties) (DECC 2015). These figures already point to a major shift from social housing (18% today, down from 25% in the 1990s) to privately rented housing (19% today, up from 13% in the 1990s). Furthermore, if current trends continue, two decades from now, the majority of Britons will rent their home for the first time since the early 1970s. By 2032, 49% will own their home, 35% will rent privately and 16% will be in the social rented sector (DCLG 2015).

These changes have been well documented in both the media and academic literature, where the focus has predominately been on issues of welfare and social justice.

There is however another, less developed, angle on the changes in the UK housing market: the impact on energy consumption and the government’s drive to reduce domestic energy demand from residential properties.

The UK government’s 2011 Carbon Plan highlights that 25% of the UK’s emissions come from domestic properties and that reducing their demand for energy is the cheapest way to cut emissions. However, at present the vast majority of demand reduction initiatives are focused towards social housing and owner occupiers and this is reflected in the figures on the efficiency of domestic properties. According to DECC (2015) using the Standard Procedure (SAP) system where properties are given a rating of between 1 and 100, privately rented properties have an average rating of 59, compared to 65 for local authority properties, 66 for housing association properties and 62 for owner occupied properties (DECC 2015). Consequently, if these targets are to be met, policies related to improving the efficiency of domestic homes need to shift to reflect changes in the housing market.

Research undertaken as part of the Whole Systems Modelling (WholeSEM) project has enabled us to highlight what these figures mean in reality for people living in privately rented homes and the implications for reducing domestic energy demand. Forty walking interviews were carried out in people’s homes, in which the participants were asked to walk the researcher through a ‘typical’ daily routine. During the interview participants were asked to describe how and when they used various energy intensive appliances and about the way they maintained a comfortable temperature in their homes.

The inability to make any significant changes to their homes presented particular challenge as they were not able replace windows and doors or modify cavity wall installation. Nearly all the tenants interviewed stated that they felt the central heating systems were far less efficient than they could be and that their landlords were unwilling to make any significant changes to the property beyond the most basic maintenance. Furthermore, the vast majority of tenants surveyed were in furnished or part furnished properties where all the large domestic appliances were provided. With a few exceptions, the tenants felt that the landlord had provided them with the cheapest possible appliance which were not particularly efficient.

At present there are virtually no incentives for landlords to provide tenants with thermally efficient properties containing good quality appliances. This is in part due to the fact that in the majority of cases the tenants are responsible for paying the utility bills so there is little direct financial incentive for landlords. Furthermore, all of the tenants interviewed stated that either the efficiency of the property or the appliances was a factor when deciding on where to live so it is unlikely that by providing efficient properties they would be able to command higher rents.

Consequently, it may well be necessary to re-evaluate the way in which rental properties are regulated and also provide greater incentives for landlords to improve the efficiency of their properties. This will become even more important in the future as the balance between owners occupied properties, social housing and privately rented properties continues to change.


DECC, 2015. Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2015. Department of Energy and Climate Change.

DCLG, 2015. English Housing Survey: HOUSEHOLDS Annual report on England’s households, 2013-14


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