13 Feb 2010

Scrutiny report on climate change gets through first hurdle

Thursday night was Performance and Overview Scrutiny meeting at Stroud District Council and I had the chance to present our inquiry group proposals under the catchy title: "Tackling Climate Change: Financing Domestic Sustainable Energy Measures in the Stroud District." I've chaired the inquiry group into these measures over the last few months - I'll do a quick blog on this then later cover the other items on a separate blog.

When I presented the report I gave a brief introduction....saying that it is clear we have some colossal challenges to face if we are to meet our targets for fuel poverty and climate change. Here is some of what I said...

For example our housing stock presents some particular challenges - that I am sure wont be new to members - for example 1,700 ie 30% of our homes are considered 'hard to treat' homes with very low energy efficiency ratings.

Officers have estimated that based on Government figures, that if we are to meet the Government target of 80% carbon savings by 2050 then we need to spend £210 million on our housing stock. £210 million is a lot of money!

We are also faced with a growing energy crisis - that was well detailed in the recent Energy Policy Seminar for Members. As the panel of speakers outlined at that seminar we are likely to see further fuel price increases that could be very significant. Indeed Sir Richard Branson and other business leaders have warned this week that we face an energy crunch in 5 years.

Another challenge is the growing numbers of people facing fuel poverty. In 2008 the number of deaths during the coldest three months were up by 50% on the previous year - sending an additional 10,000 pensioners to early graves. This year it could be worse.

In January Ofgem warned of increasing numbers of people getting behind on their gas and electricity bills which are at £327 or more, than they were at the beginning of 2008. While research by Age Concern just out shows that, despite government relief, one in five older people skip meals to save money for heating.

I am sure I speak for most [people here when I say that it is completely inappropriate in 21st-century Britain that families and pensioners should be facing such poverty.

But how best to address these issues?

How can we target most in need? How can we support microgeneration installers locally to ensure that we can deliver the changes needed? How do we decide which hard to treat homes are better to redevelop than try and patch up? How can we support the needed behaviour changes? What impact will feed-in tariffs have locally and how can we best take advantage of them?

There are a hundred more questions and clearly in our six inquiry meetings we could not hope to do them all justice. We have therefore chosen to build on Stroud's strengths - and these are many. For example establishing a network of renewable and energy efficiency installers, using local companies, getting in external finance, reaching vulnerable and able to pay groups with measures, installing a host of measures and delivering projects like 2050 successfully.

So what were our recommendations? Well you can see them on the District Council website but in brief here are the ten...

First and perhaps most obvious of all, is that we need an Energy Strategy that particularly focusses on our own housing stock. Already a draft outline paper, entitled "Energy Matters" has been written by the Housing Asset Manager in her own time but this needs work. It is a crucial step if we are to know where we should be prioritising our resources and understanding what projects we need to embark on in the future.

The second recommendation is for further work into an Energy Services Company or ESCo as they are called. These are used by a small number of councils to encourage and stimulate local energy services as well as acting as an umbrella organisation for microgeneration projects. ESCos can act as a potential reseller of electricity and have the potential to create income streams that could make a significant difference to our work around energy efficiency and indeed the Council's finances.

Third. "Resources are identified to fund research into a pilot project for the low carbon heating of a sheltered housing scheme." We heard for example, from Officers about a proposal for a heat pump at sheltered accommodation that could payback in 6 years and 3 months and cut costs to the Council of heating communal areas of the sheltered scheme. A trial project of this scale looks manageable but needs a more research. If it is viable then it could lead to similar projects across the District that could lead to carbon and financial savings and indeed even create an income in the future.

Fourth. Having won the 'Pay as you Save' project - a great achievement by this Council - we need to ensure we can learn from it. This project will give about 50 homes the opportunity to invest in energy efficiency and microgeneration in their homes with no upfront cost. Householders will then make repayments spread over a long period so that repayments are lower than the predicted energy bill savings - in other words carbon and financial savings from day one. There are also possibilities to learn how this could be used for our own housing stock.

Fifth. We recommended a contingency fund be established and were delighted this was in the recent budget - although it is only for one year.

Sixth. We recommended that some of the benefits of the latest Target 2050 be realised for Council housing.

Seventh. 'Installers, installers, installers' is what the Senior Sustainability Officer said to us - and indeed if we are to be serious about tackling these issues then we cannot do it without installers. Many of them have had a rough ride - an unclear national picture, recession, and a grant system that stops and starts. We must find ways to support our local installers: keeping the network going is one important gesture.

Eighth. Maintaining energy advice provision is crucial. We have established a more coordinated way of advice and it is important this is not lost.

Ninth. A cross-party group is our recommendation as a way to take this whole area forward. This topic is huge and fraught with many challenges - but also opportunities. Stroud is in many ways well positioned to take advantages of those opportunities: the success of previous projects like Target 2050 has led to winning government funds of £500,000 for the Pay as You Save pilot this year. There is every reason to expect we can build on this success further.

Lastly the tenth recommendation is that Scrutiny review progress on these recommendations in a year.

At the meeting I also noted that the inquiry group members were aware that there are costs attached to the recommendations being made. Indeed the current economic climate means we will have to think creatively about how this can be taken forward - however there may, for example be opportunities for the Energy Strategy to be completed internally.

Nevertheless if we are serious about taking our responsibilities to tackle carbon emissions, building a more sustainable District and stemming the rising numbers of those facing fuel poverty then we need to act. Indeed we will need a very significant step change in our approach if we are to seriously address these issues. This report is only a beginning - it sets out some of the first steps that allow us to take advantage of opportunities to build a more sustainable Stroud.

Well there was a few questions and some debate - it passed Scrutiny with two abstentions - I couldn't really see their arguments - one even saying leave it to the market - we don't need to worry (and that from a Labour councillor) - the market is failing us badly at the moment - I can only see it getting worse....this is also about putting Stroud in a stronger economic position and build resilience.....

The report now goes to Cabinet in March.


Greg Dance said...

When I read of comments from SDC elected representatives like "leave it to the market" it underlines a disturbing level of blind ignorance that could jeopardise everyone's future prosperity in Stroud.
Politics at all levels is still mired in yesterdays priorities which are mostly economics based. Yet all the money in the world cannot buy off climate change or energy scarcity, the fixes are in behavioral and attitudinal improvements and actions. A more discerning and interested electorate is needed so that prospective councillors and MP's who are behind the pace on energy related matters are not championed or voted for.

Andy said...

That just shows how far Labour have moved - they used to be a party of social justice.