This is a guest blog from Rebecca Ince, an academic researcher at the University of Birmingham. She has a long term interest in energy efficiency, retrofit and third sector organisations and she also used to work in the construction industry.
Rebecca spoke at our Energy Efficiency in Your Community event held with Community Energy England in April and reflected on the roles Community Energy groups can play in the delivery of retrofit projects. Her she expands on that talk and offers some provocative thoughts for Community Energy groups to consider.
Trust and the ‘value’ of Community Energy groups
Third sector organisations like charities, co-operatives, social enterprises and community groups have been increasingly seen as valuable partners in policy delivery and the provision of public services at the national and local level, particularly since the introduction of the charity compact under New Labour (Alcock and Kendall, 2011). Their value is attached to some ‘distinctive’ features that set third sector groups apart from public and private sector organisations: trustworthiness, flexibility/adaptability, closeness to communities, a ‘values-driven’ approach, and unique governance forms in which volunteers, staff, trustees and service users’ roles are blurred (Macmillan, 2013). What is important about these claims of distinction is that regardless of whether they are true in practice, people, policymakers and organisations of all sectors broadly believe them to be, and want to be associated with them. Small and medium third sector groups in particular are rightly lauded for and promote themselves for their intimate knowledge of local communities’ needs, their personal approach, and their responsiveness (see recent report on the “Value of Small” by Dayson et al (2018). In the environmental sustainability sector and the niche area of domestic energy efficiency, the community needs these organisations respond to are not just situated in a local neighbourhood or borough, but also in a community of interest and passion around a specific issue.
Community Energy and the Green Deal
During the ‘Green Deal era’, (between 2011 and 2016, ish), this narrative of distinction was particularly important. Because of the recent financial crisis, rapidly rising energy prices, and the political uncertainty that followed, a wind of discontent blew (or at least was perceived to blow) around the involvement of energy companies, corporate finance, big businesses and big government in energy policy. The Green Deal came to life in the form of programmes like Green Deal Go Early and Green Deal Communities, which offered some grant funding and links with Energy Company Obligation payouts to ‘kick start a market for retrofit’ at the local level. There was a rhetorical shift away from delivering retrofit at scale – in social housing, by local authorities, large corporate installers and energy companies -towards more locally bespoke services/programmes with greater involvement of community groups and third sector groups. Third sector groups were seen as more trusted, knowledgeable about their communities, and closer to real actual householders in real actual houses, than the incumbents. Policymakers and local authorities particularly valued local, sustainability focussed organisations with energy efficiency expertise and access to potentially willing householders because they removed some marketing burden and their trustworthiness potentially alleviated householders’ scepticism about retrofit. And thus, the first major role for third sector groups in the Green Deal era was born: The Promoter.
The Promoter role usually involved third sector groups being paid for referrals to local retrofit programmes. In some cases it also involved demonstrating retrofit to other householders (e.g. Bristol Green Doors, Superhomes Network). Other promotion activity included trialling an energy advice line and its effect on retrofit takeup (Bedminster Energy Group), or paying a London-wide network of sustainability organisations (London Sustainability Exchange) to provide intermediary promotion to more local groups, to whom they offered referral fees in turn.
Many organisations, though, had already been occupying another role – The Protector: offering energy efficiency assessments and advice to homeowners about what measures to install, how to finance retrofit, payback periods, and which local installers might be trustworthy, as well as peer support during the process (Northfield Ecocentre, Sustainable Living in the Heatons, Muswell Hill Sustainability Group, local Friends of the Earth branches and Carbon Co-op all offered this prior to and during the Green Deal era). All of these functions revolved around ensuring the householder understood the issues around retrofit, got a good deal, a quality installation job, and felt supported.
However, when the Promoter role was created, many existing Protectors found themselves in a position where instead of offering advice as an independent party, they also were expected to promote particular products and services as part of Green Deal programmes, thus losing their impartiality. Because many programmes involved large businesses, energy companies and contractors with suspect reputations, the Promoter role often compromised the very values of knowledgeability and trustworthiness that were seen as so valuable about the existing Protectors in the energy efficiency field. Some third sector groups found it difficult to agree to promote retrofit schemes they felt uncomfortable with, but equally difficult, as small local organisations, to turn down cash for referrals. Others felt pushed out of their established community roles by the arrival of intermediaries and cash incentives, and some groups were placed under unreasonable pressure to operate like professional organisations.
It also turns out that retrofit is a hard sell. Solid wall insulation – the main measure promoted by the Green Deal and ECO together – is disruptive, costly, tricky to install well, and has significant visual impact on a property. It requires a high level of technical understanding and capacity in the supply chain to design and install it without creating risks of damp and mould, and a significant commitment from the householder both financially and logistically. For this reason, the third role, ‘The Provider’ emerged. In some locations, local authorities and funders opted to work with third sector organisations in delivering retrofit, rather than just promoting it or advising on it, because of their specific expertise in energy efficiency, existing links to householders and connections with other technically capable organisations such as designers or installers. Carbon Co-op, Retrofitworks Co-operative and Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) were all Providers, offering a full suite of retrofit services such as surveys, design, project management, co-ordinating a supply chain, and sourcing finance. Also acting as Providers were social enterprise installers such as Jericho, New World Solar, MakeMyHomeGreen and Ecotricity.
Being dependent on Green Deal programme funding, and on householders’ business, Providers usually needed to be their own Promoters. For organisations already operating in the building trade, promoting and providing their services was not an unusual position. For others, such as CSE and Carbon Co-op, who had previously acted as Protectors, they found themselves occupying all three roles at the same time. Marketing and recruiting householders, whilst protecting them from financial or technical risks, supporting them through a difficult process, and also providing services to them, was a significant and complex responsibility. Some ended up in positions of financial risk – such as funding retrofits from their own coffers whilst waiting for ECO or Green Deal grant funding to arrive, to protect householders whilst still meeting the targets of the programme. For others, such as Carbon Co-op, it meant constantly holding in tension the personal connections and trustworthiness that defined it as a householder co-operative, with the commitment to the funders, with new and increased contract administration responsibilities, which created considerable strain on board members and householders alike.
Food for thought
The point of this piece is to urge any third sector group taking on a role in delivering retrofit: consider your position, and your organisational values. In an age in which government bodies are passing the risks and responsibilities of service delivery to third sector groups, they also pass the risk of failure and reputational damage: not only to individual organisations but also to the third sector and value of voluntary action more broadly (Milbourne and Cushman, 2013). If you are already a Protector, can you also be a Provider and/or a Promoter whilst retaining your independence and trustworthiness? If you are a Provider or Promoter, are your values seen simply as a selling point in a market which ultimately compromises them? It is my hope that consideration of these issues may help third sector groups to find effective ways of shaping policy and service delivery, whilst protecting their distinctiveness and value.
Alcock, P. and Kendall, J., 2011. Constituting the third sector: Processes of decontestation and contention under the UK Labour governments in England. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 22(3), pp.450-469.
Dayson, C., Baker, L., and Rees, J. (2018) The Value of Small: In-depth research into the distinctive contribution, value and experiences of small and medium-sized charities in England and Wales. Available from: https://www4.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/value-of-small-final.pdf
Macmillan, R. (2013) ”Distinction’ in the third sector’, Voluntary Sector Review, 4(1), pp. 39-54. doi: 10.1332/204080513X661572.
Milbourne, L. and Cushman, M., 2013. From the third sector to the big society: how changing UK Government policies have eroded third sector trust. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 24(2), pp.485-508.