What can the housing sector learn from the NHS’s net zero journey?

Posted: 28th February 2024 Natalie McClay, Junior Consultant

Housing and healthcare have always been intrinsically linked, as housing can be a significant social determinant for health. A good home often contributes to improved mental and physical health. Therefore, in the context of achieving net zero, our sustainability consultants look at what the housing sector can learn from the successes and challenges faced by the NHS.

The Health and Care Act 2022 mandates NHS England – along with its constituent Trusts, Foundation Trusts and Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) – to address the healthcare system’s net zero targets. The targets include achieving net zero by 2040 for and net zero by 2045 for scope 3. [1]

This timeline is more ambitious than the government target of 2050. Accordingly, NHS England organisations have been required to produce a 3-yearly ‘Green Plan’ since January 2022, outlining their organisational actions to contribute to the wider 2040/45 target. NHS England is at the forefront of the healthcare industry’s net zero efforts, making it a valuable resource on this topic.

These Green Plans focus on nine key areas identified by NHS England as crucial to the journey to net zero. Six of these will be addressed in the following article where they pertain to the housing sector.

The strength of the NHS lies in its holistic approach, recognising that the different areas of the organisation are inextricably linked. A systems approach acknowledges that sustainable measures have positive impacts across the system. For instance, green prescribing in the NHS recognises the positive impact that nature has on health and wellbeing, prescribing walks in nature for certain symptoms.

While Travel and Transport pose challenges for emissions control in the NHS, they continue to decarbonise their fleet by encouraging the use of active transport (cycling, walking or running) and public transport (buses, trams and trains). To promote cycling, the Trust may invest in facilities such as bike sheds, while others may host Dr Bike sessions which provide staff with free bike repairs. If driving is necessary, the NHS has been working to ensure that EV charging infrastructure is no longer a barrier to electric and hybrid vehicle adoption. Housing providers are in a powerful position wherein they can facilitate more sustainable travel much in the way that the NHS has done.

The energy generated by NHS Estates and Facilities intersects with the housing industry, as both sectors are actively transitioning to the procurement of energy from renewable sources. While certain estates independently generate energy through solar PV, some housing associations are facing a challenge in implementing such systems for leasehold and shared tenancy homes. NHS face similar barriers, as much of the estate is leased and may have less control over whether renewables can be installed. Despite this challenge, NHS Trusts have successfully installed solar PV at numerous sites, providing valuable lessons for housing associations encountering similar barriers. Taking it a step further, NHS England has mandated all Trusts to procure energy through a 100% REGO contract.

Another challenge encountered by organisations across different sectors is supply chain emissions. The Supply Chain and Procurement section of the NHS Green Plans requests that all NHS organisations procure through the NHS Supply Chain stream, leading to limited organisational nuance. However, the introduction of the Evergreen Sustainable Supplier Framework aims to assess the ‘maturity’ of suppliers across various metrics, including the scope of the net zero target, the target year and the implementation of environmental measures. Housing associations may explore the adoption of a similar framework, potentially fostering collaborative efforts with other organisations on a unified Sustainable Supplier Framework.

Certain sections of the NHS Green Plans play a facilitating role in the net zero journey, rather than contributing to it directly. Workforce and Systems Leadership is about staff and governance. The lesson to be learned here is that it’s important to provide all your staff with insights into your strategic goals for net zero and how they are being achieved. The systems approach of many NHS organisations recognises that by educating their people, change in other areas of business may move more quickly and smoothly.

Sustainable Models of Care in the NHS are centred around preventative care. The principle is that the fewer people requiring care, the lower the emissions generated by the healthcare provider. In the housing context, this concept can be implemented through the installation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in homes. These devices can detect damp, mould, or faulty boilers or heat pumps in advance, adopting a proactive management approach. Additionally, early adoption of low-carbon heating, such as air-source heat pumps, can contribute to long-term cost reduction.

The NHS has also prioritised Climate Adaptation as a key focus area. Within the NHS, there is growing emphasis on addressing overheating and flood risk. Hospital buildings, often inadequately ventilated, are susceptible to heatwaves, and floods can result in periods of vulnerability, disrupting care provision. Given the anticipated increase in the frequency of these events due to climate change, housing providers are also starting to contemplate strategies for addressing these challenges While this aspect is relatively new to NHS Trusts, the creation of heatwave and flood action plans, integrated into the risk register, can pave the way for future action. This proactive approach is something that housing providers (RPs) could also consider. Both sectors need to acknowledge that climate risk will impact every facet of their operations and therefore, should be addressed within the broader context of the system.

Both the healthcare and housing industry share a common commitment to social impact, and this often aligns with their environmental goals. The reduction of air pollution not only contributes to mitigating climate change but also enhances health outcomes for both tenants and potential patients. Emphasising green space and biodiversity in our communities provides visual stimulation, promoting well-being. While collaboration is often a topic of discussion within the housing sector, there are valuable opportunities to learn and adapt beyond interactions solely with other housing associations. By embracing lessons learned and adopting a systems-thinking approach, net zero doesn’t have to be an arduous journey.

To find out more about Altair’s Sustainability services, please contact members our team:

Annabel Gray

Natalie McClay


[1] Scope legend

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