Green deal: good deal?

There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow.

This government Green Deal is starting to look a little bit more complicated. Now climate minister Greg Barker has announced (at a Tory Conference fringe meeting) that big retailers like Tesco, Marks & Spencer and B&Q could be selling insulation and home energy efficiency measures under the deal as a way of getting more householders to take advantage of products to reduce their energy consumption.

This echoes something Housing Minister Grant Shapps said at last year’s CPA Autumn Lunch, that energy saving measures could be something that householders buy with their weekly grocery shop. The retailer would pay the upfront costs and get repaid by the householder from the savings made on the energy costs. I wasn’t too sure about it then and I’m still not sure.

B&Q I understand. Although, obviously, I have certain well-documented, ideological objections to massive government-funded deals going through the DIY shed chains, B&Q does, at least, sell building materials. But Tesco? M&S? Get real.

Much as I admire the indomitable Sir Stuart Rose and his successor Marc Bolland, they should stick to what they do best – posh food, pants, socks, cosy cardigans and statement coats for middle England.

Building materials should be sold by those who understand them – builders merchants – and installed by those who understand them – builders. And yet. And yet…

This government has as huge a problem with getting the public to buy into energy-saving in any meaningful way as the previous one did. Barker has admitted that the government might need to offer incentives to encourage greater participation. Well, of course. Just look at the take-up of the Boiler Scrappage Scheme and, for those with long memories, of the Energy Savings Trust’s cashback schemes in the 1990s.

Government incentives for carbon reduction will fail in this country without a shadow of a doubt unless there is a clear, visible incentive for people to do something about it. Which is more likely to be monetary than environmental, save-the-planet. And I’m just not sure that savings on energy bills are really visible enough.

There was an article in today’s Telegraph about how many people are likely to have been overcharged by their energy suppliers without ever being aware of it. In these days of monthly direct debits, how many of us really understand exactly what our energy costs are? The way they work out the gas bill requires a qualification in advanced calculus.

There’s been talk of a reduction in council tax as an incentive which I think could work for householders, although clearly the shortfall in council funds would have to be made-up somehow. There’s also talk of a reduction in stamp duty as a financial incentive. Clearly a non-starter because stamp duty is paid by the purchaser, not the seller and I’m sure that would have some kind of backlash effect on the housing market somehow.

So it’s clearly not going to be a done and dusted green deal for sometime. At least the government is trying to do something positive and to come up with ways of greening the existing housing stock. But for goodness’ sake, don’t throw out a perfectly capable channel to market for the sake of a few blue-chip retailers with an eye for a new revenue stream.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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