A Big Society approach to low carbon - RSA

A Big Society approach to low carbon

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  • Climate change
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Social networks

New energy saving community trusts could help us meet our carbon targets while strengthening neighbourhoods, argues John Swinney FRSA.

If the UK is to meet its energy efficiency targets, fundamental improvements will need to be made to existing homes in both the private and social housing sectors.

Many of us will need to make changes to how we live in and heat these homes.

Significant change does really rest firmly in the hands of every citizen.

Yet, the climate change agenda, energy security and renewable technologies are easy distractions from this fact; these big ticket issues may be more interesting and intellectually stimulating but do not hold all the answers. With housing set to be one of the great losers of the spending review, the risk is we continue to ignore the challenge of how to galvanise individuals and communities into action.

The policy framework is largely in place. The Green Deal led by the Department of Energy and Climate Change aims to combine growth in the economy with a greener and more efficient way of using energy. Meanwhile, the Green Investment Bank and Renewable Heat Incentive provide new mechanisms for progress. While these measures need to be supplemented with innovation which can attract private finance, the real challenge is not one of policy, political direction or even funding. The real challenge is how to drive a dramatic change in people’s behaviour.

This means identifying and creating more effective delivery models that nudge people into new ways of behaviour. Social networking tools, building social capital and shaping ‘Big Society’ interventions in deprived communities are all ways of doing this.  Local authorities and housing associations need to provide leadership and support at the neighbourhood level supported by national campaigning organisations and local community-driven ones – such as the Greening Campaign – promoting action.

So how can we progress this agenda? First, success requires some new ideas. One could be to create ‘save your energy’ Community Trusts, organised to bring communities together to save energy and share in the financial benefits that follow. Trusts will ‘own’ everyone’s electricity bills and payments, receive income from available grants, access feed-in tariffs (either directly or through a chosen provider) and utilise Green Deal, Winter Fuel Payments and other relevant initiatives. A Trust could raise finance against this income and cash flow and pay for the range of energy improvement measures and renewable technologies appropriate for the community. Savings could then be paid back to the community through a Green Dividend, which might be split between individual homes and the community.

Social landlords – local authorities and housing associations – could also receive a payment and could invest in the Trust, again receiving a regular dividend. At their best, Trusts would embrace local shops, businesses, public buildings – from libraries to fire stations – schools, hospitals and leisure centres. This kind of model would aim to strengthen local networks and information by giving everyone a stake in how their local Trust does. The aim would he to help drive changes in behaviour: at the simplest level people might just start doing something about lights left on in empty rooms!

This kind of approach is consistent with thinking behind the Big Society and could offer a way of building community coherence and cohesiveness. Could this model provide an alternative vehicle encouraging regeneration and sustainability as well as tackling issues such as fuel poverty and in creating new jobs and new skills?

We know that there are no silver bullets in policy-making and that one size fits all programmes will always come up short and that individuals and communities are not easily reshaped. However, if we can create a model that is flexible, can embrace other opportunities (for example, owning community facilities) and has a common purpose, which everyone in the community can benefit from – regardless of tenure, type of property, wealth or location – then there is a real prospect of success.

Such an approach may seem modest in light of current major issues facing housing, communities and the environment. However, ‘saving your energy’ Community Trusts, are exactly the kind of innovation needed if we are to change our behaviour, drive us towards the 2050 target of 80 per cent saving in carbon emissions and provide a vehicle to supplement the inevitable shortfall in public funding.

John Swinney FRSA is Director of Strategy at Eaga plc.

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