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Guest Blog: Delivering the Green Deal - one step forward, two steps back

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In March 2012 we [Localise West Midlands] published Green Deal Opportunities for Social Enterprise to highlight how a localised approach to delivery through social enterprises could add value to Green Deal, the government's flagship energy efficiency scheme. In particular, we argued that community anchor organisations had the credibility and advocacy skills needed to conduct a difficult conversation within communities about the changes that need to be made to people's homes and lifestyles to move towards a low-carbon economy.

Six months on, it's time to look at whether this approach, of which we are not the only advocates, is being followed as the Green Deal is launched.

Some of the utility companies are taking a community-based approach to energy efficiency more seriously, and are forming partnerships with third sector organisations. British Gas, for example, is working with the Women's Institute (WI) in Shropshire and Herefordshire to promote their solid wall insulation scheme. The WI is a good example of a community anchor organisation. British Gas pays a referral fee to the WI for each installation. This means that British Gas is moving away from what previously happened in community-based energy efficiency delivery. This was entirely reliant on volunteers, and was unsustainable not only because of the excessive demands this places on volunteers themselves, but also because of the hidden costs of managing a volunteer programme, which the advocates of Big Society often overlook.

Unfortunately the picture is not one of uniform progress. Alongside encouraging stories like the one above, there are examples of energy efficiency scheme managers who still believe that there are magic ‘community engagement fairies’ who will work, for free, to find people who are prepared to have potentially disruptive and expensive work done on their home. We know of one local authority that recently tried to implement a scheme based on this approach, and were obliged to find extra money for referral fees when third sector organisations refused to work for free.

There was a time when the Big Society approach worked. Do you remember the great low-energy light bulb giveaway when utility companies and local authorities bombarded community organisations with car boots full of low-energy light bulbs in the hope that the community organisation would find a home for them? This, of course, worked - up to a point. The bulbs were free, most people knew that they were a good idea, you didn't need to know very much about energy efficiency to persuade people to have them, and, it was an activity that could be carried out by unqualified staff or volunteers so the local authority or utility company met their targets for free.

But the golden age of active citizenship is arguably coming to an end. Birmingham Association of Neighbourhood Forums (BANF) was wound up last month, just weeks before the launch of Green Deal. Those neighbourhood fora that have survived in Birmingham are those that have moved towards a more professionalised structure.

Amazingly, there are people who believe that there are community groups which can persuade people to have measures such as air source heat pumps, solid wall insulation, and voltage optimisation devices installed, and persuade them for free. These are measures that are familiar, and often desirable to experts like me, but they are unfamiliar, and often expensive, to the general public. The task of persuading people to have them, even where subsidies are available, requires a much greater level of skill than is necessary to distribute low-energy light bulbs. The skill required is not necessarily a technical understanding of the properties of different types of thermal insulation or heat pump, useful though this is, but advocacy skills, and you do not get advocacy skills for free.

Utility company energy efficiency programmes over the last ten years have been characterised by a stop-start culture, cherry-picking, and last-minute panic selling (on one single day recently I had three separate companies knock on my door asking me if I wanted loft insulation, which I already have). This madness must end under Green Deal. The public needs planned and managed programmes of work, not the chaotic race to the bottom that currently exists, if consumer confidence in the Green Deal is to be built.

There also needs to be collaboration to stop money being wasted through duplicate door-knocking and other marketing. The costs of this duplication are passed on to us through utility bills or income tax. Yet the warning signs are there that the short-termism of recent programmes, the cherry-picking of the easiest properties and lobbying of ministers by rival industry concerns who are quite rightly concerned about having to make people redundant, will continue under Green Deal. The delays in launching the Green Deal Finance Company, which will be subject to the pressures of not only the utility companies but also the banking industry, only adds to the uncertainty around Green Deal.

There are more signs that the localised approach to delivering Green Deal that Localise West Midlands first advocated in Solving Fuel Poverty: Opportunities for Green Deal and Localisation is not being followed by some local authorities. I am regularly emailed by companies from well outside our region, who wish to parachute into places like Birmingham, Solihull and Wolverhampton, to deliver some sort of 'community green deal' from their offices in the South East. Sadly, there are examples of local authorities who would rather work with these organisations, than with the local third sector. Localise West Midlands would not dream for a moment of pretending to be able to know, understand or work with the local community in Hertfordshire or Kent, and I am at a loss to understand what it is about organisations in the home counties that makes local authorities think they can deliver in disadvantaged areas of Birmingham or Wolverhampton.

Fortunately, the third sector itself may have the solutions to the permanent crises that seem set to afflict the local authority and utility-led Green Deal schemes. Across the region, renewable energy cooperatives such as Community Renewable Energy (CoRE), Community Energy Warwickshire, South Staffordshire Community Energy, Power From Above and Sharenergy are emerging, to find ethical and localised solutions to funding and managing community renewable energy projects.

Most excitingly of all, the Energy Saving Co-operative is able to offer a scaleable financing model for Green Deal from within the mutual sector that is less subject to political, industry or banking pressure than the Green Deal Finance Company, and ‘walks the walk’ on local procurement, awarding contracts to local third sector organisations like Northfield Ecocentre who get paid for referrals.

I have always been in the 'give Green Deal a chance' camp, opposed to the doom-mongers who would like to see it fail because it wasn't their idea. The prime movers deserve all the support they can get, even if we don't agree with every decision they make, and sometimes their hands are tied by decisions made at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) or even the Treasury. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to Green Deal. Let a thousand Green Deal flowers blossom, and a hundred different schools of thought contend. But, from where I'm sitting, for the third sector and anyone else interested in local delivery, then the future has to be co-operative.

Phil Beardmore is a Director at Localise West Midlands. He can be contacted by email