The UK government considers District, Community and Communal Heating (DCCH) to be one of the most favourable approaches to meeting the country’s heat demand while achieving carbon dioxide emissions savings1. DCCH schemes are thought to have multiple other benefits including their potential to reduce heating and hot water costs for residents2

The potential of achieving affordable and sustainable heat has made DCCH a particularly attractive option amongst social housing providers. However past research by organisations such as Changeworks and Which? has observed a lack of consumer protection and some instances of heat losses and high tariff charges. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned Changeworks to conduct a piece of research to establish whether existing DCCH schemes, specifically social housing provider (SHP) owned schemes, are delivering against their affordability and sustainability targets.

In-depth research and partnership work 

Changeworks carried out in-depth research in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Energy over the course of 2016. The research aimed to explore the extent to which existing DCCH schemes are providing affordable and sustainable heat, and the challenge and success factors contributing to this. This was done using a variety of different approaches: 

  • Background research comprising a literature review and interviews with thirteen stakeholders (including representatives from district heating industry, social housing sector and Government);
  • Interviews with 24 UK SHPs and an online survey with 62 organisations responding;
  • Eight case studies of UK DCCH schemes, involving staff interviews technical and financial analysis and resident focus groups (with six out of eight case studies); and
  • A national stakeholder workshop to refine research findings and recommendations.

Recommendations for best practice and policy improvements 

Changeworks’ research findings showed that there is a significant lack of data collection and analysis by social housing providers. This made it challenging to draw clear quantitative outcomes as to the sustainability and affordability of schemes. However the findings, taken together with survey responses and evidence from interviews, suggest that well designed, built, commissioned and operated DCCH schemes, that are financed correctly, can offer reduced fuel bills compared to alternative heating. 

To provide some insight into the sustainability of DCCH schemes, case study systems were modelled using Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) software. The projected outcome was that, in the majority of cases, DCCH had lower CO2 emissions than alternative heating systems. However, the SAP model has a number of limitations and in practice it was evident that the sustainability of some schemes was being compromised by unaddressed or unidentified distribution losses. 

This highlights the need for improvements to SAP to provide more robust projections to better inform feasibility and planning. It also emphasises the importance of monitoring operational schemes to obtain empirical data, for use in calculating scheme efficiency and carbon emissions. Through this monitoring process inefficiencies can be identified and reduced to improve efficiency, and therefore sustainability and affordability of the scheme. 

From this research Changeworks produced a series of best practice recommendations for social housing providers with a particular focus on improved monitoring and evaluation. The recommendations also suggest policy improvements to support landlords in the delivery of more sustainable and affordable schemes.

“Changeworks provided a great interface between research, policy and practice. The staff were excellent; knowledgeable, professional and worked well in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Energy. I very much enjoyed working with Changeworks and would recommend them to any organisation looking to deliver similar work.”

Katharine Knox, Policy and Research Manager, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Full findings and recommendations available in a summary and full version of the research report.


  1. DECC (2013) The Future of Heating: Meeting the Challenge
  2. Poyry (2009), The potential and costs of district heating networks, DECC