The government rides to the rescue of the Big Six on the backs of the fuel poor

The planned cuts to the Energy Company Obligation will undermine the fight against fuel poverty.

The BBC reports today that the government is planning to cut annual costs of the Energy Company Obligation (Eco) in half as part of a package to reduce energy bills by £50. The Eco is more of a social policy than a carbon policy and is intended to tackle fuel poverty. Energy efficiency is the best long-term route to addressing rising bills since it permanently reduces energy demand. But the Prime Minister regards it as "green crap" so it is in the firing line in George Osborne's Autumn Statement.

By stretching the deadline from 2015 to 2017, and therefore halving ambition, the move means that around 40,000 homes who were entitled to free energy efficiency improvements will miss out this year and next. Equally worryingly, the Green Business Council estimates that 10,000 jobs will be lost as a result of the government's announcement. Until now, the policy had been a major driver of job creation all around the country.

The move also lets the worst performing companies off the hook. British Gas have only delivered up to 9% of the measures they were expected to carry out by March 2015 year while the best performer, E.ON, have done up to 74%. The former are being rewarded for coming bottom of the class.

This is not to say that there aren't problems with the scheme. At present, the policy is poorly targeted with only 20 per cent of measures going to those in fuel poverty. The remainder are received by low income households with relatively lower energy bills. In a major new report, IPPR proposes a new 'Help to Heat' scheme to tackle energy bills without lowering ambition on fuel poverty.

We propose a new 'house by house' approach of free assessments to determine whether households are in fuel poverty or not. Those that are would be entitled to free measures ensuring that 197,000 fuel poor homes were treated every year - up from 80,000 at present, or just 40,000 if the scheme is halved. Those that are not would receive an energy efficiency assessment - worth £120 - for free.

These households could use this information to take out a Green Deal loan and have energy efficiency measures installed. But as Newsnight highlighted last night, the government has achieved only 1 per cent of its target suggesting that, with interest rates of 8 per cent, the policy is failing. IPPR suggests using some of the Eco money to subsidise the cost of Green Deal loans turning it from a good deal to a great deal. It would cost the government just £16.7m to provide zero per cent loans for 200,000 households. These families and individuals would save £136 per year on their bills.

But all this looks like wishful thinking as the government have caved to the demands of the energy companies. Instead of improving its own policy, the government is riding to the rescue of the Big Six on the back of the fuel poor.

British Gas branding on the entrance to Leicester's Aylestone Road British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era