Does my society look big in this?

How is the government’s ‘big’ idea for energy policy shape up?

3 February 2011

All government ministers and policy-makers should ask themselves one simple question as they develop their policies and programmes – ‘Does my society look big in this?’.  That was the challenge laid down by CSE’s Chief Executive, Simon Roberts, at the end of his contribution to the recent Green Alliance conference on Big Society, Localism and the Environment (1 February 2011).

Responding to Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, Simon embraced the concept of the Big Society and its inherent commitment to the importance of collective responsibility and community action. “There’s been a lot of flabby and sometimes dismissive discourse about the Big Society, but there’s no denying the need to re-invigorate the population as active citizens with influence, rather than mere consumers with varying levels of buying power or passive clients of state-run services.”
But he challenged the Coalition Government to embed this thinking across all of its policy areas – particularly energy policy.  And in that context, he challenged the Minister to consider what Big Society needs in terms of changes from the business sector and in key markets like energy.

Simon explained; “Tackling climate change and ending the misery of cold homes requires engagement across society, aligning the efforts of individuals, communities, businesses, the energy market and all levels of government. That’s about as ‘Big Society’ as you can get. And most solutions to these challenges have strong local dimensions – whether it’s energy efficient building refurbishment, new transport options, siting low carbon energy generation, or behavioural change programmes.”
Did the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) ‘get it’ when it comes to Big Society and Localism?

Simon is doubtful. “DECC tends to ask ‘what can community-based energy add?’ and think of it as a nice-to-have niche in a utility-dominated world. Instead they should be thinking of community involvement in energy as a fundamental necessity, without which we will fail to sustain public acceptance of paying the significant costs of tackling climate change and fail to create the local conditions for the low carbon projects we need.”

And it is in the policy detail where DECC needs to concentrate its efforts. Simon focused in on the smart meter roll-out. “The introduction of smart meters is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a sense of a collective responsibility – a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ experience. Through a street-by-street roll-out with community-based interventions we could share knowledge and build understanding. But what we’ll probably end up with is a roll-out led by energy companies and characterised by the low-trust relationship they have with their customers.  We’re told that this approach will ‘drive innovation’, but I’m sure there’s much more to gain from a positive, collective experience than from a little bit of technological advancement.”

Simon also called on DECC to ensure that Green Deal policies live up to the stated ambition of enabling community-based energy saving initiatives.
And he challenged DECC and CLG to be clear about what was expected of the new neighbourhood-planning arrangements in relation to low carbon outcomes and to be careful about how it structured guidance to local authorities and neighbourhoods.

“Through our project PlanLoCaL we know that you get a completely different result depending on what question you ask. If you ask a community ‘What are you going to do about climate change?’ they tend to throw it back and ask what government is doing. But if you pose a more inclusive question like ‘How are we going to make our contribution to tackling climate change?’ then you are setting local action in a national and global context and it focuses people on playing their part. Most encouragingly, it also stimulates communities to think about how they can become involved and reap some of the economic benefits of delivering a low carbon future.”

The slogan ‘Does my society look big in this?’ was reportedly seen on a placard at a recent demonstration. Simon is grateful to the anonymous writer, and of course to the much-less anonymous Arabella Weir for the original, somewhat more self-centred, question.  |  Photos: Green Alliance

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