Rich white men aren’t keeping your home cold

A quick look at home insulation tells us the ‘rich white men’ analysis can be a dead end for the Green movement.

I didn’t know my parents were involved in the Ecology Party in the years before I was born until I was in my twenties. But I think I absorbed the spirit of the party through small habits and attitudes, not least in obsessively switching the lights off when I leave a room.

You might think my parents would be first in line to fit solar panels to their roof, or to insulate their solid-walled ice box of a home. But they never have. Late in their teaching careers the hassle and expense,  the long payback periods, and the possibility of losing interior space or the exterior style of the house to insulating cladding put them off.

Their inertia is typical of millions up and down the country who ignored government incentives, council initiatives and DIY store marketing blitzes.

In the mid 2000s some of my colleagues developed a strategy to refurbish the entire housing stock of the London Borough of Sutton to a zero carbon standard. For a time it seemed that all the policies were falling into place to deliver this, particularly a new mechanism developed under Ed Miliband’s tenure as energy secretary to finance expensive refurbishments.

In the following years I worked with Darren Johnson to scrutinise the Mayor of London’s delivery on his home insulation pledges, and to push for the work I saw in Sutton to go mainstream. We made this video back in 2010 to explain the promise, with a visit to a pilot in Sutton that my wife helped set-up:

But two things stopped these ideas going mainstream.

The first death-knell was the lack of political will. Councils across London never committed the funds to a pan-London insulation scheme co-ordinated by City Hall, and once austerity cuts hit climate change programmes were among the first to be axed. Few even noticed. There was no big social media outcry. Then the new coalition government botched Miliband’s policy, turning it into the ill-fated Green Deal with expensive loans and almost no grants.

It wasn’t like they were giving up on a trivial task. It may be easy to stick insulation in the lofts and cavity walls of a 1960s suburb. But inner cities have blocks of flats which can require scaffold, insurance and the buy-in of multiple freeholders, leaseholders and management companies. Oddly shaped roofs, listed buildings and private landlords further complicate the picture. None of these are insurmountable, but you need a really committed council, mayor or government to overcome them.

You also need citizens to really want it, and the second problem was the lack of demand. A lot of people couldn’t be bothered to clear their lofts, let alone move out of their home for a month while intensive refurbishments were made. Energy advisers moved street to street in London’s first large-scale roll-out talking to people about their options, but of the first 51,000 homes visited only 1,500 (3 per cent) went on to install insulation or replace their boiler (read the summary report here). We might complain about our energy bills, but when push comes to shove we’re often not bothered enough to take a few simple steps that would dramatically reduce our carbon emissions.

It is the home owners and landlords and tenants that need persuading, as much as the Government.

The ‘rich white men’ school of thought would have us believe that is the grip of an elite that holds us back, and who are responsible for most environmental problems. If only the big six energy companies were broken up, councils democratised, and the people given the means, we’d all be insulating our homes. We’re stopped by the men in suits, lining their pockets with the profits of privatisation and blocking reform that threatens their interests.

But even with a democratic economy, I doubt my parents and millions of others would suddenly gain an appetite for loft clearance. It’s more likely that the people would back the approach Labour proposed in the 2015 General Election and just cut energy costs, which would have the knock-on effect of reducing investment in insulation and renewable energy. As I wrote last month, citizens would doubtless spend their savings on more carbon-intensive holidays or consumer goods.

An alternative approach to grassroots economic democracy is simply to mandate improvements, top-down. The Energy Efficiency Directive passed by the EU in 2012 does just this for private rented homes, implemented in the UK by the Energy Act 2013. It will be illegal by 2018 to let properties that fall into the lowest two energy efficiency ratings. Caroline Lucas tried, through amendments, to take this further so that by 2030 it would be illegal to let or sell a home that isn’t up to zero carbon standards. But she got little support in the Commons – it isn’t an obvious voter winner.

In countries that are further ahead, the deciding factor isn’t an absence of white men in suits. I’ve been told many times by civil servants and NGOs in countries like Sweden and Germany that tight partnerships between local government and business have been crucial to delivering insulation programmes. My experience in the UK is no different, with insulation businesses piloting and developing promising policies, and energy policies – with the right framework – able to deliver insulation to millions of homes.

Insulating homes is not a straightforward case of public good, private bad. That’s too simplistic. To deliver the changes we need requires a sophisticated analysis of institutions – the financial, technical and democratic implications of different approaches. I believe in economic democracy for many reasons, but I’m don’t believe it is a silver bullet for climate change.

Just like Gramsci in the 1930s, and the pioneering thinkers of the 1980s Marxism Today, Greens in 2015 need to confront the present as it is. I got thinking about this subject when reading John Harris’ essay on the late history of that magazine, and the ideas forged in the 1980s that still seem ahead of their time today. They rejected the Bennite approach, which was stuck in the 1960s (where Corbyn remains), and looked to other forms of economic organisation like co-ops and small businesses better suited to the changing economic winds. They forged a policy agenda that made London under Ken Livinstone (both with the GLC and GLA) one of the most progressive and forward-looking cities in the world.

The Green Party musn’t lose itself in a Bennite fantasy land, hung up on limited concepts and rhetoric rather than engaging with the world as it is.

If we just look at the international picture it’s all too easy to become fixated on the idea that most people aren’t responsible for carbon emissions, that a tiny elite is disproportionately causing them, and/or preventing us from reducing our own emissions.

But it wasn’t just rich white men that stopped homes being insulated in Britain in the last decade. It was a lack of elite and popular commitment to tackling climate change, coupled with a lack of consumer demand for home insulation. Nationalising energy companies won’t fix those problems, nor bring us any closer to resolving the many technical and institutional difficulties in refurbishing our inner cities. A socialist economy won’t suddenly solve the problem, nor will it necessary bring the solution any closer.

Giving local government the powers, funds and duties to work with citizens and business might crack the nut.

We can blame rich white men for many things. But if we lose ourselves in an imaginary world of identity blame games, and allow that frame to define our politics, we’ll lose the battle against climate change.