Why Big Society and localism are vital to energy policy

CSE’s Chief Exec makes the case at Falmouth Energy Week

2 June 2011

They may be amongst the most toxic brands in Britain at the moment, but CSE’s Chief Executive Simon Roberts used his presentation at the recent Falmouth Energy Week to lay out the reasons why the concepts of Big Society and localism are vital to successful sustainable energy policy.

“If you think of the Big Society as it was originally conceived, it reflected a need to establish a better balance between business and individual consumer interests, the state, and our community and social relationships,” explained Simon. “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.

“Yet the need to tackle the big-business-driven consumerist policies inherent in our energy markets doesn’t seem to feature in the government’s narrative. So the smart meter roll-out will be based on sales pitches from energy suppliers to individual householders, rather than on social processes that bring people together through neighbourhood-based installations. And Green Deal seems to be being designed to suit large-scale operators, rather than the local building companies that currently do almost all of the refurbishment work in our homes (though not usually with low carbon in mind).”

Simon also argued that a sophisticated understanding of localism is vital as a mechanism for re-engaging people with their energy supply and use and embedding collective responsibilities like cutting carbon emissions into the way we live our lives at local level. “But”, he warned, ”there’s obviously a risk that localism, as currently approached by the government, will decompose into something closer to parochialism, ignoring the fact that most solutions to the energy challenge have strong local dimensions – whether it’s energy efficient building refurbishment, new transport options, siting low carbon energy generation, or behavioural change programmes. These things have to happen somewhere!”

“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 around here?’ 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.”

Simon has previously spoken on these themes at the Green Alliance’s conference in February 2011. To listen to his nine minute contribution, scroll down the page at www.green-alliance.org.uk/grea.aspx?id=5288 and go to about 6 minutes 45 seconds in Part 2 of the “Opening session” audiofiles.

All presentations from Falmouth Energy Week, organised by the University of Exeter’s energy policy programme, will be available shortly to download at www.exeter.ac.uk/few.

You can download Simon's presentation from the event here.

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