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Powering the Big Society

Posted by Miguel Mendonca, Head of Communications, The Converging World
What is the 'Big Society'? What could it be, and allow us to achieve? Let us consider the potential opportunities within the concept, and the implications for national policy.

I work with a charity that is doing its best to enact some of the tenets of the concept that David Cameron has been at pains to articulate. He said the government will empower us to take action for ourselves. This is based on a number of commitments, including responding constructively to requests for new powers for delivery at local level, reducing associated bureaucratic barriers and coordinating local support for projects through a community organiser. On the face of it, those working on community issues should welcome the idea with open arms.

For us at The Converging World, we see an opportunity in this concept. Our work involves helping communities to help themselves, in India and here in the UK. We run sustainable community development programmes in both countries, funded from renewable energy investments in the windy southern tip of India. Here, we offer a free community energy programme which guides community groups through a process of energy reduction through efficiency and awareness, and renewable energy installation where possible. It is supported through workshops, individual mentoring, and written and online guidance. The hand-holding is essential in maintaining the sense of ongoing support, on what can be quite technical activities around energy.

This is just one of a number of complimentary energy services in the city, as charities, companies, local authorities and organisations of various kinds endeavour to take action on carbon. Often this is simply because they feel moved to do something positive on this agenda and take the initiative, even if on a voluntary basis. In Bristol where we are based, the Bristol Energy Network has just been set up to help coordinate the rash of groups that have now emerged into this space. It has 26 groups on board at inception, and these are in large part peopled by volunteers.

The number of groups is a reflection of the appetite among communities to do something positive on these issues. They too have concerns over energy prices, sustainability, carbon and so on, and need guidance on how they can turn these concerns into something meaningful and real. The groups set up to facilitate them fill various niches, providing information, facilitating and supplying energy products and services.

A major worry for these actors has been the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, and the potential impacts arising from it. Of particular concern was the decision on the recently enacted feed-in tariff (FIT) for supporting domestic to community-scale renewable energy. Although it emerged unscathed for the time being, the somewhat ambiguous statement from DECC does not give much confidence: “Feed-in tariffs will be refocused on the most cost-effective technologies saving £40m in 2014-15. The changes will be implemented at the first scheduled review of tariffs [in 2012, to be enacted 2013] unless higher than expected deployment requires an early review”.

The first statement may well mean that tariff payments to solar will be reduced. The second statement is still being debated within DECC, as to what precisely will trigger an early review. Looking for today’s cheapest carbon savings is missing the point of supporting policy, i.e. to bring costs down through technological development and economies of scale.

Beyond Bristol, we have organisations such as Regen South West and Low Carbon South West supporting the greentech activity that is creating a regional hub. The successful development and deployment of environmental technologies and services is significantly predicated on public demand. Part of that demand comes from confidence in the products, and part of it from affordability. If the FIT is cut at this early stage, both the affordability and the overall confidence in the market will be damaged.

What we need from government is a solid, ongoing commitment, to build on the amazing progress of the last few months of effective policy support. Ofgem figures show well over 12,000 PV installations in seven months. We – those who seek to decarbonise our communities – need our momentum to be increased, not cut back because we are succeeding. We must not return to a time of trying to succeed in spite of government policy. The rapid take-up of green products and services in the south west alone is an indicator that we can make these changes if national policy is designed to foster growth and fulfil the Big Society rhetoric.

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