Imagination: the decarbonisation superpower

Those who lead and govern social landlords need decarbonisation to become central to their mission, not just another add-on burden, argues CT Partner, James Tickell.

We live in uncertain, even turbulent times. Tenants and colleagues are beset by the cost of living crisis – inflation, fuel poverty, food poverty, all kinds of hardship. Brexit, COVID and the war in Ukraine are affecting supply chains, labour markets and financial markets.

Climate change provides an ominous background, with floods, storms, fires and heatwaves. Even as I write this, the UK thermometer has passed 40°C and fires are burning. Meanwhile, political divisions and culture wars can lead to new policies that are the very opposite of evidence-based.

In all of this, there can be no doubt that decarbonisation is a top civilisational priority. And we know that housing is one of the main carbon emitters. Terrifyingly, there are still highly placed and well-funded climate change deniers and foot-draggers within the body politic here and across the Atlantic.

But the overall priority is clear, and for social purpose organisations. What could be a better social purpose than the survival of the human race?

That said, the obstacles to decarbonisation seem legion as we look forward from 2022. How can the necessary billions be found and then eventually paid off? What other priorities will need to be set aside, or at least downgraded in terms of urgency?

The challenges


Development of new socially rented homes looks certain to be scaled back, despite burgeoning demand. Will some properties need to be sold off to pay for the work, thus further reducing the overall supply of social housing at a time when it is greatly needed? Where will the material and labour come from, at a time when both are subject to shortages and delays?

Already, we are seeing problems in the delivery of early decarbonisation initiatives. There are so many questions and fewer answers.

In terms of housing’s regulatory framework in the UK, there is the anomalous situation that most rents cannot be increased, even if the thermal efficiency of a property has been dramatically (and expensively) improved, and the running costs for tenants conversely reduced. In most of Europe, this restriction does not apply, allowing a business case for decarbonisation to be constructed.

These many conundrums and issues continue to preoccupy and divert. Some funds are available, yes, but the sheer scale of what is to be done between now and 2035, and then 2050, is daunting indeed. How are we to get from here to there, even if we are starting in the wrong place?

The vision


First of all, we have to believe that it can and will be done. The stakes are too high to think anything else. This is where the creative power of imagination is needed. To believe in a future goal, we have to have that compelling vision of how it could be. And we need to be able to share that vision, use the power of collective imagination to create real momentum and buy-in. Imagination is our hidden superpower for shaping better futures. It lurks within us all, often neglected or under used.

For starters, the zero-carbon future for housing needs the enthusiastic support of tenants to succeed. They need to imagine that positive future for themselves, their children and communities. Politicians will be looking for the electoral support and acclaim they can enjoy through their role, perhaps through the delivery of wider economic and societal benefits. We’ve all heard of green jobs and the green economy, but are maybe less sure exactly what those phrases mean.

Decarbonisation needs to be top of the agenda


Those who lead and govern social landlords need decarbonisation to become central to their mission, not just another add-on burden to all the other demands on their time and energy. Board members and executives need to take the lead with tenants, colleagues, contractors, funders and other stakeholders.

It needs to be top of the agenda for the lobbying and representative bodies in and around our sector. Each constituency of stakeholders will have its own take on the vision, its own ways of using imagination to work towards a better and safer world.

None of this will happen just with small groups of committed people sitting in board rooms and thinking great thoughts, not even with copious use of social media – though both of those will play an important part at the outset. The exercise of imagination must be collective, sustained, focused and, above all, widespread.

Events, communications and narratives need to be planned and co-ordinated. Vitally, early successes need to be celebrated and publicised. Rigorous research on outcomes must underpin these narratives, putting achievements made beyond question.

Yes, there are considerable obstacles to progress and opposition waiting in the wings. But there is nothing that is necessarily and fundamentally insurmountable. A movement must emerge, itself part of a wider global movement for climate salvation.

Leadership is vital, but it must be distributed leadership rather than a sole point at the apex of a hierarchy. The necessary political decisions can and will be made, including even resolution of the rents anomaly described above.

We must start asserting the story of our future success and believe that the rest will surely follow. Imagination is the superpower that can now make the decarbonisation of housing real.

This article first appeared in Inside Housing (1st August)

To discuss further, please contact James Tickell on:


Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

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