Jacqueline Knox: As a firm Gowling WLG advises business operating across all of the living asset classes. While there are many differences between types of accommodation, the need to operate and deliver homes in a more sustainable way is universal. That is why we have developed this podcast to explore how we live sustainably. Over the series we will be talking to our clients about their real world projects and showcasing the progress and innovation that happens in the sector each and every day.
Today we are delighted to welcome Donna Williams who is Group Director at Sanctuary Group. As a firm Gowling WLG has worked with Sanctuary Group for many years. Established more than 50 years ago to deliver housing and care to those who need it, that original purpose still guides the organisation today. They are now one of the largest not for profit housing associations in the UK.
Welcome Donna, it's great to have this opportunity to focus on such an important topic with you today.
So Donna, I know you have worked at Sanctuary for some time but your role as Group Director of sustainability and climate change is relatively recent and an indication I think of the priority being given to this by Sanctuary. What have been your immediate priorities in taking on this role?
Donna: Well, kind of where to start really. I think any sustainability role is kind of a massive challenge and a really interesting mix between some really immediate actions we need to do and that kind of long term planning between now and 2050. I think one of the key things that Sanctuary and the sector more generally have been getting their head around from an environmental perspective is that journey to net zero with social homes so that kind of really practical asset to carbonisation piece. What are we going to need to invest, when should we do it and what order to do it in and how to bring customers along on the journey with us particularly at the moment. Anything that risks increasing energy bills is clearly something we do not want to do. But also because of the remit being sustainability more broadly, one of the immediate priorities is actually being, well, how do we link our environmental sustainability ambitions with our social sustainability ambitions? And all the other work we are doing across the organisations around things like equality and inclusion for instance.
Jacqueline: Now that road to net zero that you mentioned is not an easy one is it, and many commentators talk about this being 'the decade for action'. What do you see as being the key milestones for Sanctuary during the next decade?
Donna: So we are very focussed with our targets on a sort of milestone between now and 2030 and then that kind of ultimate 2050 net zero. So by 2030 we have made a commitment via the UN Base to Zero campaign to halve our operational carbon emissions and to reach an EPC rating of at least C on all of our social housing properties by 2030 as well.
So from an operational perspective that means that we are really looking at all of those practical, common sense things that can do as an organisation. So an example of a milestone there is the transition of our fleet, both company cars and commercial vehicles like maintenance vans to electric alternatives. An immediate milestone is around our pilot that is launching this summer to start testing out some of those technologies and then we have staged milestones between there are 2030, with a ban and new electric vehicles comes into place.
From a kind of housing asset perspective, that looks a little bit different. So we have a seven year programme where we look at all of our properties that are currently performing under an EPC band C and have a package of measures in order to boost those up to at least a band C by that time. So that means we have year-on-year milestones of thousands of homes that we need to go in, survey, produce a really bespoke package of measures and then install them. So it is a busy time for us, and a busy time for the sector, and my suspicion is that a lot of the sector will be really ramping up those milestones as we get closer to 2030 and we will start seeing a lot more volume of that retrofit work.
Jacqueline: And you mentioned earlier about your comprehensive approach to sustainability. So this goes beyond, and we know this from having worked with you, it goes beyond just environmental considerations. How do you define sustainability at Sanctuary?
Donna: So, I think for a long time sustainability is increasingly being talked about as more than just environmental. One of the most common definitions at the moment is that kind ESG approach. So, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). Another definition that we particularly like and we are looking to use in our first every sustainability report is looking at the United Nations' (UN) sustainable development goals. These are 17 goals that the UN have set out between now and 2030 which cover a whole range of different key actions for a more sustainable future. So everything from reducing inequality to taking climate action to supporting decent work. We have gone through and really prioritised which of those goals we think are most material and that for us helps to shape how we see sustainability.
Jacqueline: Yes, so that is interesting, so what do you mean by social sustainability?
Donna: So social sustainability can mean a lot of different things depending on the organisational context. To us it really means, what value are we bringing to society as an organisation? So what is the value of having a social home, what are the health benefits of that, what are the benefits in terms of giving people a stable structure for work and employment? There is some fantastic work across the sector done by organisations like Hacked and National Toms around the really positive benefit that social housing has on not just individual outcomes but broader societal outcomes. From a more maybe tangible perspective, for us it also means our community investment programme. So as part of Sanctuary's sustainable communities, we invest about £1.4 million a year in various projects that really support the kind of broader connection and resilience of our communities. And what we mean by that is, we want our individual customers and people living in our communities to feel connected to each other. We also want communities to be connected places where there are opportunities for people to feel part of the community. We also want both people and communities to be as resilient as possible so this is about, can we not just support a project like a food bank but how do we work with people within those communities that have a real passion for this. To make it sustainable, to make it something that actually, it is not something that Sanctuary is doing, it is something that the community are doing for themselves. And actually, if we can support along the way then that is great. So for me it really is also about how we are making our communities more resilient, how are we making our communities better connected?
Jacqueline: I know you are working with local authorities in partnership on some of that as well.
Donna: Yes, so within our kind of key neighbourhoods we work with a whole variety of community partners so that will include local authorities and councillors. It will also include so many different individual third party organisations, some of them quite large. So we have a longstanding set of projects with Sport England for instance in order to promote the health benefits of building movement into your life. But also maybe, very, very small kind of projects that might be run directly by people living within our communities or linking into very small local groups. So I think part of the strength of the strategy is the ability to do both and that really being dependent on the interests and the assets that are within that community.
Jacqueline: Now obviously collaboration is a key part of success when it comes to sustainability as well. Can you tell me a bit about the greener future partnership and why this kind of initiative is important in your sector?
Donna: Yes. So the Greener Future Partnership is ourselves and four other of the largest housing associations within England so Hyde, Abri, Anchor and Home Group. We founded the partnership about a year ago so Easter of 2021 and the idea of the partnership is that, there is a lot of really great conversation in the sector about decarbonisation and net zero, but it was very hard to move that into real collaborative action. So by having a partnership that is based on a collaboration agreement where we can share data, where we can jointly commission projects, we can just make that action so much more tangible. So all in all, we represent around 300,000 social homes across the sector so we feel that it is a kind of substantial voice and we are already starting to see some of the outcomes of that collaboration. So for instance, research pieces around the best ways to measure energy efficiency, kind of different perspectives on customer insight and how you measure the social value of energy efficiency works. And we are also talking about kind of more ambitious projects around how we might joint procure for energy efficiency work and how we might start to look to support other organisations in coming along that journey with us particularly around things like procurement and areas where we may already be kind of moving at a faster pace.
Jacqueline: And what benefits are you seeing and your customers seeing from your approach to sustainability?
Donna: So, I think certainly from a collaborative perspective, the key benefit for me, which I think also has a direct impact on our customers, is that, rather than each of the five organisations trying to answer the same question at the same time, we are trying to answer five questions at the same time. We are really picking up that pace of knowledge acquisition and we are actually being able to invest in things that are more substantial because, a piece of research that might be cost prohibitive to one organisation, becomes much more achievable when we do it combined. It also means that we really are sharing that best practice between organisations. We have all taken a slightly different approach to our sustainability strategy and it means that we are really cherry picking the kind of best between us. I know it certainly kind of improved the pace of our sustainability strategy. I know it is certainly broadening our perspectives on what good looks like and kind of actually really kind of challenging us to make sure that we are really staying at the forefront of what we can be achieving right now in, as you say, this kind of crucial decade.
Jacqueline: And there must be so many challenges for you in bringing this to fruition. Can you just tell us a bit about what sort of challenge, what the major challenges are and how you are trying to address those.
Donna: So I think the challenge is kind of split into two different groups. One batch of challenges are challenges that are specific to our sector and the other batch of challenges are challenges that any large organisation are facing around this agenda. So if we start with the latter section, some of that is really just about kind of a lack of knowledge about government policy and direction and what is so fantastic about this year and with the focus of COP26 is that we are really starting to see a lot more movement there. So there is that piece around, what does the future look like, what technologies are going to be available for all business whether that is commercial heating systems and their transitions to low carbon heating forms, whether that is actually just kind of clarity about what the requirements might actually be around energy performance of office buildings or care homes, or whatever that might be.
From a social housing sector I think there is a really interesting set of challenges about, where do we invest our funds. It goes without saying that protecting the environment, limiting our environmental impact is a worthy cause for non-profit organisations to be supporting and also, if we do this right which is very much what we are trying to do, it can have a knock-on positive impact for our customers as well in terms of potentially making their homes more comfortable and more affordable to heat. But, we do have other social causes that we would like to be investing in as well. So we have the building safety agenda and the cost required to that, we have the requirement to make sure that all aspects of our homes are to a high standard. We also want to be building more homes and kind of supporting that affordable housing crisis. So one of things I think is quite specific to this sector that we are working in is the sheer number of ways that we could be investing our charitable resources and how we balance our environmental agenda against that. And for me the key thing there is we have to look at those things that enjoy across them so how can we build new homes but build them to a more sustainable specification. How can, as I say, we do things that are benefitting to our customers as well has having a tangible environmental impact. And of course government funding will play a fantastic role in this as well so it is really exciting to see how that is also shaping up and we are having much more solid commitments around decarbonisation funding in particular coming out of government in the recent 18 months or so.
Jacqueline: And are you finding that your customers are engaging more and more in the sustainability agenda?
Donna: Yes, so as part of COP26 we actually launched our first ever environmental community of interest. So this is a group of residents who have said that they want to be involved in our policies and helping to shape how we respond to that net zero agenda. So we launched it back in November, we have already had that group engage with us around things like, well how do we kind of bring customers along with us when we are looking at retrofitting properties, in terms of our communications. We are hopefully meeting with them in a couple of weeks' time to talk about our approach towards electric vehicle charging points and just in general they are a kind of touch point for ideas and thoughts and we want them to be kind of giving us a bit of a sense of the pulse of what our customers care about. But it goes much more broadly than that and there is a national residents scrutiny panel that is also incredibly engaged and challenging with us around this agenda and it is something that is increasingly coming up in that kind of more kind of informal communication with customers too which from my perspective is only a good thing. One of things we really need to happen in order to make this successful is that customers are also really engaged in what new technologies might mean for them and those kind of broader behavioural changes that we will all have to make to our lifestyles in order to reach net zero. So for me that ramping up of interest is a sign that society as a whole is really starting to get its head around net zero and environmental performance too.
Jacqueline: Well that seems like a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much Donna for joining us and the how we live sustainably podcast and I hope to see you soon.
Donna: Thank you.