At least at the outset, “it was a bit of a slog, to be honest”, admits Chris Spicer, technical team leader for London’s RE:FIT project. However, a lot has been achieved and there is a new wind in the sails of this initiative, which seeks to improve the energy efficiency of the capital’s public sector buildings.

Indeed, those institutions that have gone through the programme speak highly of it. These are as diverse as schools, hospitals, fire stations, the London School of Economics (LSE) and the botanical gardens at Kew (main picture).

What’s on offer

There are three common themes when it comes to benefits:

First, it is based on a framework which means that there are guaranteed costs and savings. As Andy Stanton, Head of Sustainable Buildings at Transport for London (TfL), said, this is attractive to the finance team as it gives certainty for the business case and payback timescales.

Second, there is a pre-approved list of, currently, 16 suppliers, which cuts out several stages in a typical public sector procurement process.

Third, it comes with free advice and expertise, from supporting the business case through to project delivery. Spicer leads of a team of six full and part-time technical staff. In many organisations, “there is a big skills gap, particularly around project delivery,” he says.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

The London School of Economics – a RE:FIT success story

The challenges

There have been “peaks and troughs” since the project started in 2009. There is often initial interest but this can drop off when the customer realises it will still need to gain funding and provide resources for its projects.

Austerity hasn’t helped, says Spicer, with positions removed or roles reassigned. And there has been patchy take-up from the London boroughs that sit below the project lead, the Greater London Authority (GLA). Spicer cites “four or five” as very keen but that’s out of a total of 32. Similarly, there has been enthusiasm among some parts of the health sector but not others.

By institution, schools have proved difficult, as each has its own budget, and there has been little or no progress with academies, as these are funded by central government and cannot borrow.

One other challenge to flag is that the current phase of the project, which has been half funded by the EU via its European Regional Development Fund, comes to a close in one year’s time, in August 2019. It is not known whether at that point the GLA will step in and cover the expected EU funding gap. Another option, although Spicer declines to speculate, could be to charge customers, to make the scheme at least partly self-funding.

RE:FIT is one part of the wider Energy for London strategy and there is new impetus under the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, with a zero carbon strategy for 2050 – As such, the RE:FIT project looks strategic, not least because existing buildings have to be a key focus if the zero carbon target is to be met so it seems reasonable to assume it will continue beyond next August.

The up-sides

On the positive side, “in the last six months it has really picked up”, says Spicer. In particular, this has been through collaboration with NHS Improvement, the body responsible for overseeing foundation trusts, NHS trusts, and independent providers that provide NHS-funded care.

Through this route, the RE:FIT team has started work in the last few months with ten new hospital trusts, which constitutes a “big pipeline”. “These are big projects with lots of energy-hungry buildings,” says Spicer.

Small islands with big ambitions

Chris Spicer, Mayor of London’s RE:FIT programme

Indeed, this reflects one of the lessons from the project to date, which is to focus on one or two key clients that can unlock multiple projects. In this way, in Hounslow, it has completed projects at nine or ten schools, with another 18 on the ‘to do’ list. This is preferable to spreading thinly across lots of individual entities that might take up a lot of time, only to pull out ahead of commencing.

For all the challenges, there has been a lot achieved. It has worked with more that 200 public sector organisations to retrofit more than 550 buildings, equating to £102 million investment in projects, 149,000 tonnes of CO2 saved, and annual public sector cost savings of £7.1 million.

And there’s certainly lots still to do. With TfL, for instance, it has done projects on a number of buildings, with another 24 now committed, but TfL has more than 1000 buildings in total.

There are similar retrofit projects across the rest of England and Wales. In London, there is also now complementary heightened activity including promoting solar PV and scaling up the retrofitting of other buildings, including those of housing associations. So for all the challenges and future funding uncertainty around RE:FIT, there is plenty of good news as well.