I submitted my doctoral thesis in September 2011 and had my viva November. The thesis is titled ‘Greener Homes for the Future?: Sustainability in Local Authority PFI Social Housing’, (access is currently restricted for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but I will outline some of the main findings here).
First a little context:
- Institution: Northumbria University – Department of Geography and Environment
- Supervisors: Dr Geoff O’Brien, Professor Phil O’Keefe
- Funding : Funded by Northumbria Univeristy as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP)
- Examiners: Professor Matthew Leach, Dr John Brady
- Keywords: Environmental Assessment, Sustainable Procurement, Project Management, Private Finance Initiative.
- Main Methods: Multi-Criteria Analysis, Participant Observation, Document Analysis.
The United Kingdom is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 as part of a strategy to mitigate climate change. As housing is responsible for approximately 26 percent of all UK carbon emissions, housing carbon reduction is a key component in meeting this target. Local Authorities are faced with the problem of how to improve the quality of existing housing stock, provide additional social housing to meet increasing demand, and cutting emissions from both new and existing housing stock. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is being used as a means to deliver new and refurbished social housing using private, rather than public capital, and is expected to enable the delivery of sustainable, rented homes. However there have been concerns about the use of the PFI model to deliver public sector housing which meet sustainability goals
The overall aim of this thesis is to examine whether the UK’s Public Finance Initiative (PFI) can achieve the procurement of sustainable social housing. In order to address this aim, the study considers the technical and contextual issues that affect sustainability in PFI housing projects, focussing specifically on one such project in the North East of England. With regard to the technical issues, the research introduces a methodological tool that has been developed to assess the sustainability of PFI housing projects. It is envisioned that the tool will be useful for assessing the sustainability of other housing projects procured under a public private partnership arrangement. The contextual issues are examined by means of an ethnographic study carried out from within a local authority PFI procurement team over a period of 2 years.
The results of the study suggest that the PFI procurement model can be used to deliver sustainable housing, but is currently hampered by a lack of skills, knowledge and understanding. These problems are particularly acute at the project management and governance level within the procuring local authority. The study identifies the need for clear guidance on incorporating sustainability into the procurement of PFI projects. It also recommends the use of appropriate tools to assess the sustainability of plans and build capacity within local authority procurement teams.
The research investigated the technical and contextual factors that influence sustainability within local authority PFI housing Projects. The findings indicated that PFI housing projects can result in sustainable housing, or at least plans for sustainable housing. This is dependant however on the use of an appropriate evaluation methodology to ensure that plans developed by PFI bidding consortia are robust, achievable an appropriate. The study suggested that the use of existing environmental assessment methods such as BREEAM and the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH) to mandate and ensure sustainability on projects is problematic and may not always be appropriate. Such tools can be inflexible in their application and actually promote some measures that are not appropriate for the type of development that they are being applied to. Despite this information, metrics and good practice examples with regard to sustainability do exist and are in fact incorporated in many areas of existing legislation. The creation of bespoke tools and evaluation methodologies which incorporate and measure aspects of sustainability that are appropriate to a particular project can ensure that all project goals are accomplished, not just sustainability goals.
The findings demonstrated that the contextual factors that surround the procurement of PFI housing projects have a significant effect on the resulting developments social, economic and environmental sustainability. In general the research suggested that both PFI clients and developers have a good understanding of sustainability concepts, but require more guidance on how to implement sustainability in projects. The research found the way in which a PFI project is governed and managed is a critical factor in determining whether sustainability is successfully incorporated into the project. The study also found that the inflexibility of PFI contracts creates a barrier to innovation in sustainability, particularly with regard to sustainable technologies and future proofing developments for future flexibility in energy provision. In addition the study suggested that political issues can have a profound influence on the sustainability of PFI projects by adding time, cost and complexity.
The study provided evidence that the use of PFI as a procurement method which involves competitive dialogue and an opportunity for the client to influence designs throughout the design process, does have the potential to produce sustainable housing. However this is dependent on the knowledge, skills and capacity of the procurement team and the use of a robust, appropriate bid evaluation methodology. The study described the development and use of one such methodology, the PFI Sustainability Evaluation Tool. It is envisaged that the tool will be useful for other local authorities involved in housing procurement as a means to evaluate bids, but also prepare project output specifications and educate staff.
Finally whilst the study found that in relation to the case study, the procurement did lead to sustainable housing, it is unclear whether PFI housing in general is more, or less sustainable than housing procured under a different route. The lack of transparency surrounding projects procured via the PFI route, and absence of meaningful post occupancy evaluation makes comparison of projects impossible. In order to ensure that projects are sustainable in the long term, post occupancy evaluation should mandatory for all PFI projects.