Stop-go saving the plant

The government needs to follow London's example and make going green affordable

If you have ever fancied the idea of getting a government grant to help you put a wind turbine, solar panel or wood-burning stove in your house, then by the time you read this it will probably be too late – for this month at least.

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme was set up by the DTI last year to boost the take-up of renewable energy technologies on houses and community buildings, by giving away grants of up to 50 percent towards the cost of installation. £80 million was committed to the programme in total, but initially just £6.5 million to the household part of the scheme, and this was tapered over three years to stop in 2009.

Even without being properly promoted, the LCBP grants have already proved much more popular than funds allowed. When the £3.5m originally set aside for 2006/7 ran out after just six months at the end of October, the then Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, responded by shifting another £6.2 million into the household pot from elsewhere in the programme.

Despite howls from the renewable energy industry, who had already suffered a hiatus of several months at the start of the year while thrifty householders bided their time between the end of the previous ‘Clear Skies’ scheme and the start of the LCBP, the DTI decided to divide the new money into monthly rations. They said the move was to make sure the grants lasted to the end of the scheme, but it has proved a disastrous strategy.

With just half a million pounds to go around each month, the money ran out on 20 December, 12 January and then, last month, applicants logging onto the LCBP website were told to ‘try again next time’ before noon on the first day of February.

So, we’re predicting even worse this month, and the Greens have issued a plea to the government to boost the fund for March and then do something to sort out some real incentives for renewable power in the budget in three weeks’ time. My previous blog about the benefits of feed-in tariffs shows how the pay-back period for renewables can be dramatically cut, but making it possible for ordinary households to afford the up-front costs is just as important - if it isn’t going to be only the rich few taking advantage of the benefits.

The German government has got the right mix of policies – as well as setting feed-in tariffs, low cost loans are being handed out at the rate of more than a billion pounds a year. If we can create a scheme to force unwilling students to take out index-linked loans to pay for their education, we can certainly organise something similar to help the millions of willing people out there save the planet.

All this thrashing around by central government is in sharp contrast to our regional government here in London. Greens are so impressed with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s new Climate Change Action Plan that I took part in the press launch this Tuesday and even wrote a foreword for the 232-page document.

The plan aims to cut London’s emissions by 20 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2025. Many smaller measures, such as switching off lights or powering the tube with renewable energy, will contribute to these reductions.

But my two favourite ideas will also bring some of the biggest reductions. The first is decentralising our energy supply, so that a quarter of our electricity is moved off the national grid in 20 years’ time. The second is a crash programme of home insulation, lining lofts and filling the millions of cavity walls still losing heat throughout the capital.

This will be provided cut-price to everyone and completely free to pensioners and people on benefits. The average household will not only be much greener, but will also save £300 per year on its bills.

Of course, the Green Party would be keen on the plan, seeing as most of the measures in it have been prompted by our London Assembly members’ work with the Mayor.

Since 2004, they have used their voting clout over the Mayor’s annual budget to add more and more green measures to his plans, so that this year more than £150 million will be spent on things to help Londoners live more lightly on the planet, and most of these things are key parts of the action plan.

It’s very appropriate that London should be the city taking the lead on this. We are one of the most vulnerable cities to climate change worldwide, with nearly a million of us already living below high tide level, and the Thames Barrier is being raised more often than ever before.

A year before hurricane Katrina, Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist warned that, ‘cities like London, New York and New Orleans would be the first to go’ as the world warms up.

However, there is a big hole running right through the London action plan – and it’s labeled ‘central government action’. There’s only so much Londoners can do on our own and, to achieve the 60 percent cuts science tells us we need by 2025, a further 13 million tonnes a year needs to be saved with measures we don’t control.

Aviation already causes 34 percent of London’s total emissions (and that’s just counting the planes that take off from City and Heathrow airports, not the flights home or any that go from Gatwick or Stansted) so without a national change of heart on airport expansion, we will never make the targets.

Similarly, measures to encourage behaviour change, get us into cleaner cars and bring us cleaner electricity can only go so far without the same kind of vision from national government. Over to you, Gordon – we’re waiting!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.