video Podcast Episode 11

Samantha Granger from Thirteen Group

This week, we're talking with Samantha Granger, the Head of Environmental Sustainability at Thirteen Group. We talk about the challenges associated with deploying a sustainability plan, the ways housing providers can work together to achieve goals as an industry as well as what Thirteen Group are doing to pave the way for Net Zero.

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Podcast Transcript

Alastair:
Hello, and welcome to another “Switchee Podcast”. Today we're joined by Samantha Granger, who is head of environmental sustainability at “Thirteen Group”. Many of you may know Thirteen Group from the north of England. They have around 34,000 properties and I’m really excited to speak to Sam today because Thirteen Group have been doing some super interesting things relating to technology, IoT but also sustainability strategy and how to pull their organization through the challenges of net-zero. Before we get into those topics, Sam welcome! I’ve had a little look at your background and see that you've studied for a degree in environmental technology prior to embarking on a career in housing. And I thought maybe our viewers might be interested to hear a little bit about that and also how you came to work in housing.

Samantha:
Yes. So, I went back to university as a mature student back in about 2008, 2009 to do my Master's in environmental technology. So, it was a degree looking at the challenges of climate change and what we needed to do to react and the technology that was needed to make an impact. As part of my degree, I needed to do a dissertation. I got linked up with what was then fabric housing to look at what we could do to move their housing stock over to more decarbonized living. So, we're looking back in those days at PV. As part of that I then was able to get a knowledge transfer partnership placement with the housing association for a nine-month placement and getting on for 11 years later I’m still here. Loving life in social housing.

Alastair:
That happens a lot, Sam. People stumble into housing and then stay with it. It's interesting that you're saying around that sort of 10, 11 years ago, there was a big focus on climate change but also PV and I don't know if you would agree with this but it sort of tapered off a little bit after that when the feed-in tariffs went and a lot of sustainability and energy people and projects have simmered under the surface. But they have definitely come back with a vengeance as the issues that we're trying to tackle have come into the news and the budgets a bit more. And so on that note, I guess net-zero is what a lot of people in the housing sector are talking about at the moment. Do you feel that we're ready as a sector?

Samantha:
I think we're certainly better placed than we were a couple of years ago. So, about two years ago now we started looking at the new home standard that was going to be coming through and obviously the push that we wouldn't be having gas boilers was on the horizon. And that's when at Thirteen we started looking at what this means for us. And I think two years ago when we first started looking, the debate was just starting. I feel over the last 18 months or so it's certainly started to pick up speed. There's a lot more talk in the industry about it, a lot more discussions and pilots. Everybody's starting to really understand what their journey needs to be. I don't think we're all ready, necessarily, to say this is what we're going to do and this is how we're going to get there because there still seems to be a lot of nervousness in the industry to be the first. To kind of really nail the colours to the flagpole, so to speak, and just get on with it. I can understand that because you know, in order to make that commitment we need to make sure we've got the right data. That we're comfortable with the finances because this isn't going to be cheap.

Anybody who's looked at delivering decarbonisation it's like “Wow! That's a lot of money” and there's a massive skills gap, not just in social housing but across the industry and in the supply chain to actually deliver on this. Whether that be the installers of the technology or the in-house skills and to actually manage the delivery and be able to support the business to understand what their journey needs to look like.

Alastair:
Indeed. Yeah. Interesting that you've mentioned the new home standard. I think a lot of people used to think around innovation and carbon reduction and efficiency instead of new homes and new cars and new other things, but the reality is we've got a huge, huge existing housing stock that requires these deep retrofits which cause issues with the logistics of it and like you say the skills. But also, the financing element which is interesting. So we've talked a little bit there about the kind of asset side. The bricks and sticks, the properties, which is obviously a big part of what housing is about. But I guess from your side from talking with you, you've focused a little bit more on the strategy for the business as a whole and how that plays into your net-zero commitments. Are you able to tell us a little bit more about the initiatives that you've been working on?

Samantha:
Yeah. So, we were very conscious at the beginning of our journey that before we could do anything to move on with our stock or look at how we needed to influence others we needed to be aware of what net-zero means for Thirteen. So what's our carbon footprint, what do we need to do to reduce our environmental impacts as a business? So we took some time to really understand what that looks like for us. We've measured our carbon footprint and we've looked across the business to understand where our environmental impacts are. And from that, we've developed a 10 point plan and it gives us the priorities for change. One of the biggest priorities for us is really empowering our colleagues to be able to support us in that journey. So we've got a campaign, it's an internal campaign called “Take Control”, which is basically looking at how we can empower every member of Thirteen to understand their role in the journey. What climate change means for us as a business and industry. What it means to our customers because ultimately anything we do as a business, has got to be customer-focused. Thinking about the decarbonisation of the stock, which is something we need to address and we need to take our customers on that journey with us.

In order to do that, we need colleagues that are fully engaged in that journey. So we've been spending a bit of time over the last few months developing what that looks like and starting to run some internal campaigns. We've invested in the carbon literacy approach - which is gaining momentum within housing. I know it's been very well adopted across the Manchester area and it's certainly gaining interest in the northeast now. Because carbon literacy really gives individuals that understanding of why it's important to tackle climate change but also how they can make an impact because it's such a massive thing. You can sit there and think as an individual, “What difference can I make?” and I think we all need to appreciate lots of little differences make a big difference.

So we've just, we've got about 30 environmental champions now across the business and 10 of them have committed to actually becoming trainers of carbon literacy. We'll be able to roll that out to all starting with the willing and then working our way through the business.

Alastair:
Yeah. I think that's ultimately important because then everyone can understand what their role as an individual is but also within the business and how that links into the bigger picture. The joy of carbon literacy as well is you can use that to have those conversations with customers because it's easy to use language when it's not necessarily scientific. It's the facts and the figures of what you can do.

Samantha:
Yeah, I’m really excited to be rolling that out and then looking at how that can help us when we move into the delivery of our decarbonisation approach with customer engagement which is obviously key to getting success.

Alastair:
That's really interesting Sam. I guess the thought process of trying to ensure that you as an organization and your teams and colleagues are operating at a higher level in terms of the carbon literacy approach just means that everything else will flow from that. So, if every individual in your organization is living and breathing the problem then when you come to roll out these programs across your properties that ultimately affect your customers, who are individual human beings as well, it makes that conversation a bit easier. I hadn't quite thought of it in that way. And you've mentioned a couple of times the sort of baseline of data as well, which is massively important. We talk to housing providers all day every day and there are lots of different stages that people are at with the type of data and quality of data that they have. Certainly on their properties.

Something that we're quite interested in with Switchee is sort of moving from that every five-year form-based approach of getting energy and data information from properties to trying to do it on a live basis with sensors. But it's ultimately the same approach. You get the data and then you make the informed decision. So look, with all of those challenges, I guess there's a situation where you kind of think how can we make this happen, where can the help come from. So I'm interested in your views on how housing providers can use the supply chain and industry and government to work together to do this.

Samantha:
Yeah. I think one of the things that's within our gift within social housing is our ability to collaborate and work together and to understand what the challenge is. You know, like any industry there's competition. There's wanting to be the best at this and the best at that but I think we're very good as an industry in actually sharing and coming together when it's needed and one thing that's been really interesting over the last few months is the increased amount of collaboration I’m seeing within the sector. So Thirteen are a part of the northeast of England climate coalition, which is looking at the northeast of England being the greenest region within England. And as part of that, we've actually got a northeast carbon group, which has got 15 member organizations now. We just come together once a month sharing best practice. We look at what's working for each other, where we've got things that are not working quite so well, where somebody else may have tried it and as part of that we're looking at building our ask of both the supply chain and government to help us deliver on our net-zero ambition.

So looking at where we can drive social value through the supply chain but where we can also support the supply chain going back to what I said earlier about the skills issue when it comes to delivering on this. One of the things we need to be aware of is if we want the supply chain to be there for us to deliver on decarbonisation, we need to be able to give them some insight into what our ask is going to be, what do we wanting to do and how we want to get there in order that the supply chain can then build on those skills. And building on those skills gives us an opportunity in a social value respect. When it comes to the training and the skills development within the northeast how can we actually pump that investment? Bring that delivery back into the local economy to do that, if that makes sense. It's intertwined. It's a massive opportunity for us. Just how we do it is still open to debate.

Alastair:
Indeed. Yeah, my views on this - I was involved in renewable technologies around the time that you were doing your Masters. There was a bit of a focus on it back then and it does feel like it went away for a period of time and it's come back with a bit of a vengeance which is great. So in my view, there are solutions kind of there - people have done the hard thinking and the development of products and technologies and approaches. It just hasn't been done at this sort of scale that is required to bring costs down. And then you've got this gap of everyday day-to-day skills within the workforce.

So that seems to be the gap and what you're saying there Samantha, as someone who works for the supply chain in housing is, it's kind of music to our ears. That you recognize that giving us some guidance on what you're going to ask for is all we need. We'll get the solutions and we'll provide them at a great price if we know what you want. So you just touched briefly on the social value side of things, I think this is quite important to maybe come back to because again, it's something that is talked about a lot. It's quite difficult to track and has historically been pushed into the supply chain to deliver that. Is there anything else that you guys have worked on or heard about in terms of creating social value whilst we're doing these projects?

Samantha:
Yeah. I do believe that the delivery of these projects gives us a great opportunity to increase the amount of social value that we can deliver within our neighbourhoods, our areas and our region. Basically, when it comes with the employability and training and skills opportunities if nothing else, why shouldn't our customers and our local community be the people who benefit from the training and then the skills that are needed to be developed and I think it is within our gift.

First of all, invest some time in understanding what the gap is. But then working with the supply chain on how we then actually approach that, how do we work with the local colleges, the local trading providers and the suppliers to develop that training and make it accessible.

Alastair:
Yeah. It's a massive opportunity.

Samantha:
Going back to what I mentioned earlier about the northeast climate coalition, we're actually working with BEIS and our local energy hub to undertake research to understand what that looks like. So to try and get a grasp of what the need is. In order that we can then inform the supply chain but again, it comes back to collaboration. Us working together. Having those open conversations in order that we can push it forward.

Alastair:
Great! Thank you for that. So we're nearly out of time, Sam. So, it's been really interesting to sort of hear a little bit about yes, your understanding of the skills gap that we have but also the kind of positive steps that you guys are making and it's interesting to know about the kind of corporate side of that if everybody's singing from the same hymn sheet with the carbon literacy internally, then when you come to roll out the projects, it would get more uptake. Wouldn't it be a great environment in the next few years if lots of your residents were doing the work to upgrade the properties that they and their families and friends are going to be living in, which would be a nice thing to think about.

And confidence we hear this from everybody. No one wants to be the first to go, no one's quite sure how it's going to work. It's going to be expensive and I feel like green finance and financiers are going to play a big part here. Money talks and so until the money comes in or people find a way to get hold of the money it's difficult to do anything and plan too much. So also we've talked about the 10-point plan here and I think the main thing that comes out of this is the mantra of taking control and that's on an individual basis for everybody in the organisation, and your residents and supply chain. Everybody take control, do it now and we can get this done together. Sam it's been great to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much! And yeah, see you soon.

Samantha:
Great! Thank you! Bye!

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