To fix our broken energy market, we need Help to Supply

The government should do more to help communities, local authorities and businesses not only produce but supply their own power.

The Help to Buy scheme has so far attracted 6,000 applicants in just two months, and has already enabled nearly 750 people to climb onto the property ladder: another step towards encouraging a "property-owning democracy" and securing assets for individuals and families. Great. But there is a much more radical shift waiting to happen in the energy retail market, and a far greater opportunity to facilitate widespread ownership, not only among individuals, but communities and businesses too. We have heard so much about the need to encourage diversity and competition beyond the "big six", yet seen little by way of policies to put this into action.

In fact, we’ve seen the reverse taking place. The reduction in the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) levy will aid to bring down costs, but only for the larger energy companies, giving them an even greater advantage in winning over customers. And according to a recent report, the 20 month price freeze advocated by Ed Miliband will see smaller utilities lose out. We desperately need policies that will not seek to disadvantage start-ups and smaller players within this sector. The party manifestos - if they are serious about tackling high energy bills – must include measures that encourage innovation, competition and widespread ownership, not stifle it.

Markets overseas show that an entirely different picture can be painted. Germany has 1,100 electricity suppliers, and the average household has a choice of around 72 of these. The four major energy companies operating in Germany (E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall) take up 43.8 per cent of the retail market. Most other suppliers are owned by the municipality or the community, and the rate of "bottom-up" ownership of such services and assets is growing. At the end of 2012, 190 communities had been successful in bidding to run – yes, own and run – their local distribution grid (at least nine of these are co-operatives) and 70 municipal utilities had been founded.

This is not renationalisation or even remunicipalisation, but a move toward a much more constructive, locally-governed infrastructure in which communities ensure transparency, efficiency and good competition. Many of these emerging community-owned suppliers, such as Feldheim Energie and EWS Schönau, are not only offering cheaper tariffs than their competitors, but are seeking and fuelling the prosperity of their locality. In contrast, the UK has 30 licensed suppliers and the largest six take up 98 per cent of this market. No community has yet set themselves up as a competitor.

True, we cannot lift the infamous successes of Germany’s market and immediately apply them to the UK, and neither for this reason can we directly duplicate policies from overseas. But what we can do is not do nothing: we need a strong policy infrastructure, backed by government, that will catalyse new start-ups and new competition.

The Community Energy Strategy, published today, recognises that many of the UK’s communities, local authorities and businesses have an ambition to not only produce, but supply their own power. Ofgem’s "Licence Lite", which was introduced five years ago to make this possible, has so far seen only one application progress. The GLA, the largest governing authority in the UK, has the facility, scope and financial backing to take advantage of this scheme, but many institutions and civic groups don’t. The London Authority’s application is still pending final approval, so we are unsure as to whether even this will be successful.

What we need is a "Help to Supply" scheme. Government, working with the Department for Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem, should set up a series of pilots to work with a range of partners – communities, generators, local authorities, supermarkets, business hubs, Local Enterprise Partnerships – to help them establish a licensed supply company. Along the way, risks, costs and barriers should be noted and policies – perhaps even an alternative to Licence Lite – should be implemented as a result of this learning. This way, we may move from the paltry 30 suppliers we currently have to doubling or trebling this number in the next couple of years, and perhaps even more as the momentum builds.

Our ambitions are right, but our policies are wrong. If we are to take rising bills, competition and transparency seriously, we simply cannot let this opportunity pass us by.

Caroline Julian (@carolinejulian) is Head of Research at ResPublica and undertook a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship to Germany last year to explore the ownership structures of local distribution grids and utilities. The report based on this trip will be published through ResPublica this year.

Lightbulbs on display in an electrical retailer in Soho in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Julian is Deputy Director, Head of Policy and Strategy at the thinktank ResPublica.

Photo: Getty
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Why gay men love this photo of Prince George looking fabulous

It's not about sexuality, but resisting repressive ideas about what masculinity should be.

Last week’s royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provided the most intimate view of the young family to date. Throughout the five-day visit to Poland and Germany, it was the couple’s adorable children who stole the spotlight.

As George and Charlotte become better acquainted with a world in which everyone recognises them, this level of public scrutiny is something that will no doubt have to be carefully managed by the family.

But there is one particular image from the trip that has both captured people’s hearts and prompted debate. On the eve of his fourth birthday, Prince George was invited behind the driver’s seat of a helicopter in Germany. Immaculately dressed in a purple gingham shirt neatly tucked in to navy shorts, the future King is pictured staring out of the helicopter in awe.

As a man who was visibly gay from a young age, the distinctly feminine image of George smiling as he delicately places his hands on his face instantly struck a chord with me. In fact, an almost identical photograph of five-year-old me happily playing in the garden is hung on my parents' kitchen wall. Since the photos appeared online, thousands of other gay men have remarked that the innocence of this image reminds them of childhood. In one viral tweet, the picture is accompanied by the caption: “When mom said I could finally quit the soccer team.” Another user remarks: “Me walking past the Barbies at Toys ‘R’ Us as a child.”

Gay men connecting this photograph of Prince George with their childhood memories has been met with a predictable level of scorn. “Insinuating that Prince George is gay is just the kind of homophobia you’d be outraged by if it was you," tweets one user. “Gay men should know better than that. He is a CHILD," says another.

Growing up gay, I know how irritating it can be when everyone needs to “know” your sexual orientation before you do. There are few things more unhelpful than a straight person you barely know telling you, as they love to do, that they “always knew you were gay” years after you came out. This minimises the struggle it took to come to terms with your sexuality and makes you feel like everyone was laughing at you behind your back as you failed to fit in.

I also understand that speculating about a child's future sexual orientation, especially from one photograph, has potential to cause them distress. But to assume that gay men tweeting this photograph are labelling Prince George is a misunderstanding of what we take from the image.

The reaction to this photo isn’t really about sexuality; it’s about the innocence of childhood. When I look at the carefree image of George, it reminds me of those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly. The time before boys are told they should like “boy things”, before femininity becomes associated with weakness or frivolity. Thanks to a supportive environment created by my parents, I felt that I could play with whichever toys I wanted for those short years before the outside world pressured me to conform.

Effeminate gay men like me have very specific experiences that relate to growing up in a heteronormative world. It is incredibly rare to see anything that remotely represents my childhood reflected in popular culture. This image has prompted us to discuss our childhoods because we see something in it that we recognise. In a community where mental illness and internalised homophobia are rife, sharing memories that many of us have suppressed for years can only be a good thing.

People expressing outrage at any comparisons between this image and growing up gay should remember that projecting heterosexuality on to a child is also sexualising them. People have no problem assuming that boys are straight from a young age, and this can be equally damaging to those who don’t fit the mould. I remember feeling uncomfortable when asked if my female friends were my girlfriends while I was still in primary school. The way young boys are taught to behave based on prescribed heterosexuality causes countless problems. From alarmingly high suicide rates to violent behaviour, the expectation for men to be tough and manly hurts us all.

If you are outraged at the possibility that the future king could perhaps be gay, but you are happy to assume your son or nephew is heterosexual, you should probably examine why that is. This not only sends out the message that being gay is wrong, but also that it is somehow an embarrassment if we have a gay King one day. Prince William appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine last year to discuss LGBT bullying, so we can only hope he will be supportive of his son regardless of his future sexuality.

Whether Prince George grows up to be heterosexual or not is completely irrelevant to why this image resonates with people like me. It is in no way homophobic to joke about this photograph if you don't see a boy being feminine as the lesser, and the vast majority of posts that I’ve seen come from a place of warmth, nostalgia and solidarity. 

What really matters is that Prince George feels supported when tackling the many obstacles that his unique life in the spotlight will present. In the meantime, we should all focus on creating a world where every person is accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because clearly we’ve got some way to go.