ECO – now Every Community’s Obligation?

Well the Autumn Statement has now confirmed what we already knew, namely that the immediate result of the so-called ‘review’ of green levies has been the evisceration (ECO).

ECO, whilst far from sufficient for its supposed original purpose, did at least offer the prospect of some real progress being made in tackling the chronic energy inefficiency of the nation’s homes. Particularly for the intractable seven million or so ‘hard to treat’ homes, mostly with solid walls, whose occupants could have expected their energy bills to halve under the scheme.

Strange then to review levies with the purpose of reducing bills by a little, when the actual result is to keep bills sky high for the unfortunates who will not now see their homes improved. And let’s be clear about this; even the remaining Carbon Emissions Reduction Obligation (CERO) element of ECO will probably not go towards such treatments, since cheaper cavity and loft insulation has also been included into ECO targets. It is very unlikely now that obliged companies will seek to discharge their obligations through ‘hard to treat’ homes when they can achieve the watered down and time-extended targets by other, cheaper means.

There, rant over. RIP original ECO. That’s the result of what has to be seen as a pretty crude, knee-jerk response to political problems by the Treasury.

The response of DECC to the turmoil, however, has been altogether more subtle and almost entirely off the radar. For at the same time as the programme as a whole has been slashed, few eyes have been focused on what has happened to the remains. And DECC has been at work to significantly change the direction both of the almost comatose Green Deal and of the other elements of ECO such as the Carbon Saving Communities Obligation (CSCO) and Affordable Warmth. That both remain at the same level of obligation and that they stretch now over four years instead of two means, in effect, an enormous switch of resource to those two schemes over and above the cut to CERO.

Furthermore, other smaller switches and changes start to paint quite a different picture of the focus and direction of both Green Deal and ECO for the future. DECCs ‘Green Deal Community Competition’ for example has seen its funding quadrupled, directly from cannibalising the almost completely unspent ‘Green Deal Cashback’ scheme for individual Green Deal applicants. Only £2m out of the £125m cashback money originally allocated has actually shifted out of the door, mostly on replacement boilers. And of course, elements of what would have been in Green Deal have now been incorporated into eligible ECO activities, alongside, significantly, district heating schemes. CSCO eligible areas have been substantially extended.

All of which says to me that the original individual focus of measures in both Green Deal and ECO is being stealthily switched towards a ‘street by street’ approach, with local authorities, social landlords and public sector consortia at the heart of the process. I say ‘stealthily’ because it is (understandably) acknowledged nowhere that the original vision of a nation of individual homeowners sensing a ‘win-win’ energy efficiency bargain and signing up for Green Deal and ECO is now effectively dead – any gains that will emerge from the wreckage will be through public sector activism and collective provision.

All of this, is probably a little galling to all those who had to stand by and watch collective provision schemes such as CESP and Warm Front swept away in favour of the new world of individual activism. Those who have tried, often in the face of great difficulty, to bend and shape some of the new programmes back towards this, almost self-evidently fruitful way of improving residents’ energy efficiency in their homes. Respect to those local authorities and local consortia, such as Birmingham, Newcastle and the Solent area who have tried to get some movement out of unpromising positions. Now perhaps they can make some more progress, albeit on the back of the disappearance of many of the resources which, if properly applied in the first place, could have been making quite a difference.

So two boos for Treasury for taking apart its own Government’s much trumpeted programme; one small cheer for the quiet redirection of what is left by DECC. And certainly at least two cheers for the cash-starved local authorities who are gearing themselves up to make something actually happen.

It would be nice for DCLG to actually acknowledge the direction of local energy efficiency is heading in and secure resources for its local charges to maximise the opportunities they are struggling to make happen. But I suppose in present circumstances that might be an ask too far.

This article was first published in Business Green. 

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One thought on “ECO – now Every Community’s Obligation?

  1. Yet another perceptive commentary from Alan Whitehead – not least the forebodings he expresses in his final para, about the capacity for Eric Pickles’ Communities Department – certainly on recent experience – to intervene deliberately to try to frustrate this sensible agenda.

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