Goodbye to ethical man...

Sian mourns the passing of Newsnight's 'Ethical Man' and reflects on lessons that can be learnt from

Newsnight’s year-long ‘Ethical Man’ project came to an end this week. I watched most of the reports and, although some of them played up to green stereotypes, it was all a big step up from the usual magazine show treatment of green issues. I was also pleased to be asked to talk about the Green Party’s policies in the ‘end-of-Ethical-Man’ debate on Wednesday.

They did invite a token sceptic as well. Only Newsnight seems to do this as a matter of course nowadays and it’s very frustrating (getting Nigel Lawson on to rubbish Stern, for goodness sake!). So, as well as a slightly preoccupied David Miliband, Peter Ainsworth for the Tories, Chris Huhne for the LibDems and me, we had to listen to the delightful ‘professional skeptic’ Bjorn Lomborg, determined to undermine Ethical Man’s efforts.

But I thought Ethical Man was a great experiment. Getting people to try things out for a week or ‘test out the latest eco-gadgets’ for a three-minute slot is never going to show you much about the realities of living a greener life. But carrying it through for a whole year gave some brilliant insights into how an ordinary person can make deep cuts in their carbon footprint with some pretty simple changes and without pain.

They picked a good person for the project. At the beginning, reporter Justin Rowlatt wasn’t at all keen on the idea, so it was great to see the ease with which he adopted some of the measures. I was particularly impressed when, having given up his car for six months, he and his growing family (two small children and another arriving part-way through the year) decided they didn’t want it back and gave it away to a friend. They even walked to the hospital to have their new baby, and then used traditional cloth nappies without a murmur. All very encouraging.

The other big carbon saving was from cutting energy use around Ethical Man’s Camden home, achieved mainly through energy-efficient lightbulbs and changing behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. The main motivator in all this was a portable gadget that communicated with their electricity meter to show the energy being used. Justin took an enormous amount of interest in his appliances as he took it around the house switching things on and off. One of the best bits of the show was seeing his reaction to the effect of one 100W bulb on the readout.

But there were some problems. When having a home energy audit via infra-red camera, insulation was identified as something his home badly needed to cut its emissions. But, without a cavity wall to fill, fitting insulation to the inside of his exterior walls was judged too expensive to pay back quickly enough.

This is a scandal we’re well aware of in the Green Party. MEP Jean Lambert’s recent ‘Hot Houses’ report estimated that 53% of household emissions in London are from space heating and a third of this heat is lost through uninsulated walls. London has a very high proportion of houses without cavity walls – 56%, nearly a third of all solid-wall homes in England, and putting insulation on the inside of solid walls costs £40 a square metre. Not a lot for a small flat like mine with only a couple of exterior walls, but for a house it can run into thousands.

We can’t expect people to make these investments on their own. Thanks to Green pressure, the GLA is now providing free insulation for pensioners and people on benefits, but proper government support for everyone else would be a long-term investment in our housing stock that would pay off for the country as a whole many times over.

Greens in elected positions are already putting this principle into practice. The first universally free insulation scheme is in Kirklees where Green councillors negotiated, through the Council’s budget process, to provide it for 30,000 households this year at no cost.

Schemes like this need extending to the whole country, so that 2.5 million homes are insulated a year. Yes it would cost £4 billion but would save five million tonnes of carbon dioxide after the first year, ten million after the second, and so on until everyone benefits from lower bills, and we all save a huge amount of carbon.

I think there are two key lessons from Ethical Man. First is that individual action can make a big difference – Justin cut his family’s carbon emissions by 20% in one year, and that’s including a questionable flight to Jamaica to expose the bogusness of offsetting. If we’re going to reach the 90% cuts we need by 2050, every possible bit of carbon must be saved, so things like low-energy light bulbs, reducing our flights and cutting down car journeys become obvious.

But government action is also crucial. A lot of our emissions aren’t under our control – they are created on our behalf by public bodies and businesses. Looking only at Ethical Man’s home emissions, the one-year saving was close to 40%. So, government has to lead the way, putting its own house in order, regulating businesses and creating a policy framework that makes ethical lives easier.

The green option needs to be made the easy, obvious and cheap option. This is exactly why I got into politics. By changing my own lifestyle, in the end I’m only changing one life – and then only for as long as I keep it up. But, by helping to change policies and get Greens elected, I can help make it easier – and cheaper – for everyone to change their lives in the long term.

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
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.