Concrete jungles, suburban savannahs

CSE’s Dr Nick Banks on why a just energy strategy needs to pay attention to the social ecosystem

20 February 2014

DECC’s recently published Community Energy Strategy recognises that community-led energy projects can play a key role in tackling fuel poverty, making carbon savings and delivering a range of other benefits, like building stronger community ties, local jobs and skills. But communities are all different; not all of them have members who are skilled and confident in working with the planning system, or households with the social and economic capital to take full advantage of the schemes targeted at them. Without the right tools and support there is a danger that the communities that have most to gain from participation in community energy schemes will be the least likely to do so.

We led an evidence review about social justice in regard to climate change in the UK for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which was published this week. It explores a number of perspectives on this issue. It finds that disadvantaged and low income communities are less likely to participate in the decision-making processes for adaptation to climate change impacts, and are also less likely to engage in local policy making and planning around carbon mitigation and energy efficiency. This raises the chances of their interests being ignored, which only further disadvantages them as the impacts of climate change and rising energy prices take effect.

There is also the well documented issue of engagement, which is an issue for all types of community but is particularly problematic in low income areas. For example, area-based energy efficiency schemes in disadvantaged areas (such as projects funded under government schemes like the Community Energy Saving Programme and the Carbon Saving Community obligation) are notorious for struggling to recruit owner-occupier and privately-rented households; some energy suppliers report that they have had to provide cash incentives for households to accept the installation of valuable, free, energy efficiency measures that would potentially save them hundreds of pounds per annum in fuel bills. Even with these incentives, scheme participation has often been extremely low. And the level of subsidy itself is not the only issue – one CESP area offered a £700 subsidy and recruited 300 households. Another offered £3,000 and only recruited 30. So what is going on here? And how can it be addressed?

Social capital – the degree to which a community is internally networked with bonds of friendship, cultural and family ties and reciprocated social obligation – has been identified by some as a key feature of communities that can act collectively to bring about outcomes which benefit everybody. But there is no clear evidence to suggest that social capital relates to greater incomes. Nor that this kind of internal or ‘bonding’ social capital is a prerequisite for joining an area-based energy scheme where the individual household benefits, with or without the co-operation of their neighbours. For community schemes requiring collective effort, high levels of bonding social capital are an advantage. But there is another kind of social capital which could be critical: the ability for a community to create links and partnerships with other communities and organisations – so-called ‘bridging’ social capital.

Developing community energy schemes needs huge social, economic and organisational commitment – it is very difficult to muster this without partnership and support. And partners need embedded organisations and semi-formal groups to work with. Encouragingly for the Community Energy Strategy, the evidence is clearer that both bonding and bridging social capital can be developed by interventions such as establishing neighbourhood forums, groups or clubs.

There are other issues influencing engagement which are particularly evident in low income communities. People don't always trust the agencies delivering the schemes; the schemes can seem irrelevant to householders because the agencies don't present them as addressing their core needs or interests; and people on lower incomes tend to be more cautious and averse to the risks that could be associated with major household disruption. All of these are particular features of schemes which are delivered in a top-down fashion with local authorities, energy suppliers and local agencies designing schemes which are then ‘done to’ targeted areas.

Although there are certainly opportunities for improving top-down schemes, perhaps it is also time for more radical approaches which work from the bottom up, for example by creating trusted networks of trained individuals based in these communities. These individuals or groups can establish processes for gathering community opinion and feeding that into decision-making forums. They could also catalyse the referral of the most vulnerable households to schemes that are themselves developed and delivered by local groups, albeit with proper resourcing from national and regional-level organisations.

Bottom-up approaches are much more likely to create trusted information and engaging material which speaks the language of the intended audience, whilst also mobilising and empowering communities to develop their own energy solutions. In this way, low income and disadvantaged communities can get the sustainable energy systems they need whilst also securing a stronger voice in local and even national decision-making.

Read about the Climate Change and Social Justice evidence review here.

Image: Green Urban Living Day, Laura Kidd/Amplified Group.

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