Localism – what does it mean for energy efficiency?

Author: Kerry Mashford 04/08/2015

The Localism Act 2011 introduced a new right whereby charitable trusts, voluntary bodies and community organisations can apply to carry out services provided by local authorities. At the same time, the economic crisis and the year-on-year tightening of their finances have forced councils to slim down on all fronts, including staffing. The result is a perfect storm in which they offload as many assets as possible in an effort to remain within their budgets and reduce their financial, legal and operational responsibilities.

So, over the past few years, there has been a plethora of building asset transfers – including community centres, libraries, leisure centres and the like – to town and parish councils, charities, voluntary and community groups, and the private sector.

Localism is a laudable and democratic concept. However, it’s big failing is that it can result in the fragmentation of a locally integrated service (libraries, for example) and the withdrawal and retrenchment of skills and expertise back to the original local authority.

Needless to say, I’m thinking of energy management and energy efficiency here. In some cases, especially where a portfolio of buildings is transferred to a private sector asset management provider, energy might be dealt with much better and more efficiently than under local authority control. It’s inevitable, however, that there will be a lack of technical knowledge among the smaller and voluntary organisations taking over buildings, especially in the context of the more immediate need to simply keep a service or building operating.

One the face of it, this vacuum might open up some business opportunities but the reality is that there are now lots of boards and committees run by enthusiastic but non-expert individuals with no guarantee of including the breadth of skills found in a traditional public service organisation. Under these circumstances, energy is likely to take a back seat, is forgotten or isn’t even on the radar at all.

It's often difficult, messy and complex enough for experts to understand how much energy a building is using, and how to improve its efficiency – much more so for people taking over responsibility for a building for the first time. Most won’t know where to start - what to measure, how to measure it, and what to do with the results. What’s more, the organisations they represent probably don’t have the financial resources to buy in energy services and expertise and, even if they do, they won’t have the benefit of any economies of scale.

Worryingly though, the implementation of devolved and decentralised public services opens up the potential for dissipated skills and for energy issues to go unaddressed – ironically, just at a time when we need a concerted effort to reduce energy bills and meet the UK’s emissions targets.

For us at the National Energy Foundation, this means that there’s an even greater need for us to continue with both our charitable work and our work with communities, and provide services that act as a useful inroad into energy management and energy efficiency – such as our online help and information services and the Energy Envoys project we’re planning to run with The Duke of Edinburgh Award.

This project plans to harness the energy and enthusiasm of young people on the volunteering part of their DofE Award, supporting them to undertake energy related projects within their communities - for example improving the energy efficiency of a school or community building. If you know someone responsible for a community building that might benefit from either online or Energy Envoy assistance, please ask them to contact us.