Don’t keep it a secret

The case for national communications on energy use

It seems odd to have to convince government to show off their own policies, but a newly published Green Alliance report argues that a whole raft of consumer-facing energy policies are in danger of sinking if we don’t have a co-ordinated communications plan. With the rising cost of fossil fuels and the recession grinding on, we can’t afford the usual lacklustre take-up of energy efficiency polices with the Green Deal, the smart meter roll-out and the renewable heat incentive. If the government is going to protect the public from our rising bills, it needs to show clearly and explicitly what’s in place to help reduce our costs. That will take a bit more than a departmental press release.

A clear government narrative is especially important when it comes to energy: policies that will save people money in this area face unique difficulties; in the first instance, mounting suspicion around the motives of energy companies selling it to them and, in the second, having to overcome a vocal, if eccentric, opposition to any policy that involves decarbonising. We’ve already seen how odd it can get: one quiet weekend, war was declared on proposed changes to building regulations. A Lib Dem tax on our conservatories? Aux barricades! This bizarre clarion call conveniently ignored the fact that the idea was a key Conservative one, and applicable only to the most enormous conservatories. Also, it wouldn’t have been a tax, as householders would have been eligible for Green Deal funding to help pay for the improvements involved. As Kevin McCloud said, "If that makes it a tax, let’s have more of them." Three wrong out of three wrong, but this kind of puffing and blowing becomes accepted wisdom for the public if the government does not offer its own narrative, stating clearly what it’s trying to do.

This governmental shyness about communicating contrasts with the openness we’re seeing more generally; every bill’s amendment can be data mined, we can watch live footage of traffic cameras, find out every (declared) ministerial meeting, or check on crimes rates in our area. We have all this data, but so little information.

The National Archives website shows what a change in approach this is for government. It contains decades of public information video footage, covering everything from rabies to the 1971 census. Most apt is the rather surreal 1947 approach to energy efficiency as the public are told to "watch their meters". Most use fear to get their point across: the post war austerity need to overcome the general decline in quality of life, more recently, fear of climate change. Perhaps the most famous is Norman Fowler’s apocalyptic (and effective) national television film on AIDS.

But fear isn’t the route our report advocates. Instead, we think the message should be about opportunity. As government once did with films on the right to buy, or what the birth of the NHS meant for the public, a national message, backed up by local promotion, should make clear to us the opportunities on offer. A co-ordinated, simple, but comprehensive message will get trusted organisations on board, and counter the risk of conflicting and contradictory communications.

Green Alliance’s report, Neither sermons nor silence, which we put together with a broad consortium of businesses, argues that successfully communicating energy policies and, more importantly, securing take-up, can’t be managed by the private sector alone. A disjointed approach runs the risk of creating confusion and mistrust. Scottish Power, one of the businesses who fed into our report, and an enthusiastic advocate of the Green Deal, states clearly that a national approach to communications is vital to complement its own efforts and provide a foundation on which they can build customer engagement.

This is about being sensible with public money. These policies have cost a lot to develop; they will cost more in delivery and even more in failure. Without an effective communications strategy, a lot of taxpayers’ money will be wasted. When the Change4Life healthy eating campaign had its budget frozen, it saw a 90 per cent drop in calls to its information line. The government, realising that some communications money is well spent, restored the campaign backed with private sector contributions. We need to learn from such lessons and encourage the government to say, loudly and clearly, what it is doing for us.

Shout it from the rooftops, the 6 O'Clock news, the Today Show - just don't keep it quiet.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.