Citizens Advice and the transition to net zero homes
Reported by Carmen Smith, Engagement Coordinator, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge
In September 2023 the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum met with Zoe Guijarro, Principal Policy Manager, Net Zero Homes, at Citizens Advice to discuss the transition to net zero homes, with a focus on the role of Citizens Advice.
Established in 1939 during wartime, Citizens Advice has grown and changed with society, with their national network of offices giving advice over the years on topics including rationing, consumer rights, and more recently COVID-19. The aim of this Policy Forum discussion was to consider how this public body responds to one of the most pressing challenges of our time, climate change.
Citizens Advice are the statutory consumer advocate for energy consumers. Since 2014, they monitor and evaluate energy suppliers and energy networks, work towards developing energy policy and advocate on behalf of consumers, representing those who may not be able to represent themselves through the ‘Extra Help Unit’. In August 2023 their report ‘A Flexible Future’ aimed to ensure that the UK achieves a just transition to clean energy that does not leave certain groups more marginalised.
The impact of short-termism on the energy transition
One of the main points of discussion was the impact of political and economic short-termism on energy efficiency. Lack of continuity in government means that policies such as the Energy Company Obligation and Home Upgrade Grant may come to an end. This stop-start funding not only impacts those accessing the help but has a bigger long-term effect on the supply chain, when it would be beneficial for it to build up over time. The private finance sector is also unable to respond with new finance models if there isn’t any long-term commitment from government to boost both confidence and demand. It also means that there is a lack of systems thinking which would enable different policy strands to pull together in the same direction and give the same reinforcing messages.
Participants discussed how one of the biggest challenges to policy making is that even with successive changes of government, little changes over time because of the short termism in the political process. This can lead to entrenched positions and ideologies that are difficult to shift. Citizens Advice therefore calls for a change of focus from actions that promote short term success to those aimed at long term change.
The challenge of communicating energy efficiency
Citizens Advice have recently looked at the benefits of increasing energy efficiency, including household savings and broader positive impacts, for example on the NHS. But even at a time when energy efficiency should be attractive, with the high costs of energy being costly to government, it still has little impact on decision-makers.
Citizens Advice have found an increase in the number of people asking for advice on energy efficiency, with many looking to their gas or heat pump installer as ‘industry experts’. There is therefore a need to build up skills in the supply chain to offer advice that is sound and independent. Communicating the benefits of energy efficiency to supply chains within the house building industry is also a major challenge as they are often rooted in traditional practices and notoriously inflexible to change.
Trusted intermediaries that people turn to for advice also include community centres, churches, and local councils. One participant highlighted that local parish council meetings with energy companies had been helpful in increasing solar panel use in their village. The participants suggested that parish councils can be a good way to find a trusted voice that local people connect with. To support this, Citizens Advice believe that policy development should consider who people’s trusted intermediaries are and ensure that advice given to the public is accurate, independent and accessible to all.
The role of culture in energy efficiency
A recent study by UKERC suggested that uptake for energy efficiency measures was higher across rural aging and farming communities, as well as in poorer Asian communities. While the results of this study cannot comment on the reasons behind this trend, Citizens Advice are undertaking further research to determine if there may be relational and community effects that influence uptake of energy efficiency measures within certain cultural communities.
Participants also cited case studies such as the well-insulated homes in Norway, and Kenya where, because of a lack of trust in Government, there is a strong culture of bottom-up, neighbourhood-led change. Culturally we think of our homes in very different ways across the UK, and it was noted that referring to best practice both from other countries and within countries is important.
The role of economic status in energy efficiency
Although help is available, it was found in a recent study that the average property would cost £69k to retrofit, with government grants not covering most of this cost. It is not surprising then that wealthy retirees are often the target audience for energy efficiency measures. Among housing developers, installing energy efficient boilers also goes hand in hand with policies of gentrification aimed at improving the value of housing stock, sometimes resulting in negligible energy savings. This raises the important question of wealth inequality, and what percentage of the population are excluded from such measures.
Citizens Advice believe that focussing policy making on either the ‘haves’ or the ‘have-nots’ should not be an either/or question. Policy should focus on those who have access to funding e.g., stamp duty incentives and subsidies for landlords, but should not ignore those who have less agency. As more people move to electricity being their main source of heating, Citizens Advice aim to ensure that some groups don’t become stuck on an increasingly expensive gas grid and are ‘left behind’.
The substantial upfront cost of energy efficiency measures means that there does need to be a longer-term vision. This includes investment from the private financial sector and energy suppliers to come forward with different business models, as well as a long-term signal from government that this is the direction of travel.