Recent energy debates have been a bit heated – but are we now more aware of consumption?

Graham Duxbury
Graham Duxbury

As the dust settles on the energy furore we must ensure that greater than ever awareness of energy consumption issues translate into behavioural change amongst the public, argues Graham Duxbury, Director of Development, Groundwork.

If there is one good thing to come out of recent debates on energy – from the highly charged political ping-pong around energy prices to the furore over fracking – it’s the fact that public understanding of the need to think differently about our use of natural resources is at an all time high.

As is so often the case, however, ensuring that increased awareness and concern translates into tangible behaviour change is another thing altogether.

For too long in the UK, there has been a tendency to be complacent about energy use. Yet the facts are stark and well-rehearsed.  The UK has some of the most inefficient housing stock in the whole of Europe and fuel poverty is alarmingly high with the choice between heating and eating all too real for some people. In Scotland, there were 19,908 deaths registered in the four months of winter 2012/2013. In England and Wales there were 31,100 excess winter deaths in 2012. Of course, not all winter deaths can be attributed to fuel poverty, but there are well-proven links between cardiovascular and other diseases and cold, damp homes.

And yet things could, and should, be very different.  We know what to do to improve the fabric of our homes and we know what works in terms of minimising consumption. In many cases, simple tweaks around the edges of lifestyle choices can have a significant impact on a household’s bottom line. We’ve seen campaigns come and go urging us to go green, act on CO2 or do our bit and we have a bank of literature on behavioural science and nudge theory to explain what motivates people to act differently.

So why isn’t it happening?  Often for the most vulnerable in our society the issue is not to do with understanding or access, it’s that the advice on offer doesn’t connect with their daily concerns and isn’t delivered in a way which is sensitive to the other challenges they face.  It’s also a fact that many people have less room for manoeuvre, living in rented property and without the luxury of upgrading to more efficient appliances.

The government’s response is that help is out there and the market will provide.  The element of the Energy Company Obligation focused on the most vulnerable has survived the latest changes intact and, in theory at least, should enable those with least to benefit from free or heavily subsidised measures.  But the system to access it is complicated, managed by companies perceived by many as profiteering pariahs and, to large parts of the population, irrelevant or totally invisible.

Groundwork’s Green Doctors are one example of an initiative trying to cut through this complexity and bring the benefits which are undoubtedly on offer to those who need them most.  But delivering these local advice and support services depends on accessing small pots of scarce grant funding or negotiating complex contracts with private sector providers.  Both can be done but what is really needed is a one-off investment in a large-scale local outreach and advice service.  There are many who could contribute – government of course, an industry keen to stimulate demand and create jobs but also the lottery through its aim to alleviate poverty and public health bodies looking to reduce the strain on NHS budgets.  The knowledge and delivery vehicles are ready and waiting, but what we need is ambition, urgency and scale.


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