Tackling household bills – what can be done?

By Leonie Cooper, Co-Chair of SERA

LHG/SERA Fringe Meeting Labour Party Conference 2012.
With Emma Burnell, Melanie Smallman, Leonie Cooper, Jack Dromey MP

So two and half years into the Tory-led coalition government, what has been done to tackle the spiralling bills that householders face in all sectors, whether public rented, private sector rented or owner-occupied? We’ve heard a lot about cutting benefits paid to people on low incomes, but not much about cutting the costs that people face.

As ever, it’s left to Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet to start talking about bringing rogue landlords under control, and to start talking about breaking up the monopoly of the “Big 6” energy companies. In 2008, SERA launched a pamphlet on Community Energy, jointly with the Co-operative Party, and now the ideas and examples in that pamphlet, demonstrating how communities working together to purchase energy jointly can secure a better deal, are starting to be heard more widely.

But there are another two and a half years to go before the next General Election. They may have done nothing so far, but perhaps the Tories and LibDems will have done something to tackle household bills by the time of the election? Indeed, they will have done something on household bills – but sadly, going in completely the wrong direction. Their flagship policy, the Green Deal, will actually reduce bills – but then add back onto the reduced bills the cost of the improvements made to the building. It’s hard to see why anyone would actually take it up, as there will be no reduction in bills – at a time when salaries are frozen, and many people are being made redundant as the public sector is downsized. Why would anyone tie themselves into paying for Green Deal Measured, not for a few years but for ages and ages?

Why would anyone want to get involved in the Green Deal bearing in mind it will do nothing to reduce household bills? It’s my view that they won’t – and nor will many organisations. The initial set of pathfinder companies comprises just 22 companies. The Greater London Authority conducted some research in London to find out how many London authorities might get involved in the Green Deal – of the small number that are looking at implementation in detail, they are all Labour Authorities. Haringey and Islington are taking a strong lead – both Labour-led. Inside Housing conducted a national survey, which revealed that most social landlords that responded to their survey have “no plans” to do anything on the Green Deal at all. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new policy.

Of course, if Tory authorities hang back this does create an opportunity for Labour authorities to do some job creation for local people, investigating the opportunity to become Green Deal Providers for their own boroughs and neighbouring Tory Boroughs or Districts – but it will still leave household bills higher.

So what do we really need to do to tackle household bills? We need:

  • A reformed regulator – Ofgem is simply not doing what it should be doing in terms of regulation
  • To break up the monopoly of the “Big Six” energy suppliers / generators
  • Local community-owned energy generation
  • A de-centralised energy grid
  • De-carbonised energy generation, including proper investment into large-scale renewables on land and at sea, both wind and wave.
  • Full energy market reform, of both suppliers and generators
  • A reduction in energy requirements resulting from both building fabric improvements and behaviour change

Under Labour, when Ed Miliband was at DECC, we had begun to make progress with the Energy Company Obligations, CERT and CESP, complemented by a fully functional  Feed-In Tariff, and to be further enhanced by the Renewable Heat Incentive.  Replacing all of this with the Green Deal and a few Renewable Heat competitions is not the way forward.

We need a transformation from the smallest and most local level to the largest scale to really deliver cheaper energy and to reduce both carbon and bills, and new regulator that will break up the Big 6 monopoly and forced bills back down.

It’s clear that this Government isn’t really interested in tackling both carbon and bill reduction – but Labour will.

Based on Leonie Cooper’s speech at the joint SERA/Labour Housing Group fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference.  SERA is the Socialist Environmental Resources Campaign.  More information at http://sera.org.uk/

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