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David Johnston MP & Cllr Richard Clewer: Powering up communities


David Johnston MP (Wantage) and Cllr Richard Clewer (Leader of Wiltshire Council)

There has been a renewed focus on the way we generate and use electricity. More power should be given to communities to take steps to insulate themselves from volatile international fossil fuel markets through community energy schemes. This naturally conservative approach to energy will empower people to take back control of their energy bills.


‘Community energy’ schemes are undertaken by communities, often in partnership with local authorities, government, and third parties, to generate or conserve energy locally. This could be a council-led energy efficiency retrofit scheme for social housing, or local renewable installations managed in partnership by a council, social enterprise groups, and an energy supplier, for example.


A focus on local community is a vital principle of conservatism, dating back to the father of conservative ideology Edmund Burke and his praise of society’s ‘little platoons’. A decentralised approach to energy represents a chance to strengthen community ties, cultivate pride, and feel involved in the decision making process. It also promotes competition.


The gas crisis has made clear how vital conserving energy and securing our supply is. Efficiency installations help consumers and councils waste less heat, which means lower energy bills and less fuel poverty. Local renewables can generate income for councils while accelerating the UK’s transition to becoming a powerhouse of cheap, clean, homegrown renewables, with communities benefiting directly.


Wiltshire (where Richard Clewer leads the council) has successfully engaged in an ongoing energy efficiency retrofit scheme for social housing after securing over half a million pounds from the government’s Green Homes Grant. As of Spring 2022, over 300 properties have been assessed and 43 upgraded. A local community energy organisation has installed solar panels on Salisbury Cathedral to help it reach its 2030 carbon neutrality target. And Wiltshire Wildlife’s projects at Chelworth and Braydon Manor harness power while supporting the charity’s nature restoration.


Meanwhile, in the constituency of Wantage and Didcot, Westmill Sustainable Energy Trust has spearheaded local community energy projects, with the Vale of White Horse (represented in Parliament by David Johnston MP) now the only location in the UK with large-scale community-owned wind and solar generation. Its solar and wind co-op projects together generate enough power for over five thousand homes annually, with revenues of £3.3 million per year.


Community energy across the UK lost momentum under a slimmed down regime of regulatory and subsidy support, making it difficult for communities to compete with bigger suppliers. The Local Electricity Bill, which David has tabled in the House of Commons and is supported by 311 MPs, lifts restrictions and reduces barriers for local electricity generators, helping them to sell energy generated locally.


There is also an opportunity in the Energy Bill to provide Ofgem with an energy transition remit to allow anticipatory investment. Allowing companies to invest properly in upgrading the grid is vital for community energy and the transition as a whole. By investing ahead of certain demand rather than in reaction to it (a ‘just in time’ model), we can speed up the transition away from gas and lower the overall costs of the transition.


Where community energy schemes exist, they are popular and welcomed by local people. We should do all we can to enable and empower their growth, the potential for which is quite remarkable: the Environmental Audit Committee concluded last year that a twentyfold increase is possible nationwide.

Conservative environmentalism entrusts communities over Whitehall to know their needs. If we allow them to be the first to benefit from energy generation in their own backyard first, and empower them to use energy more efficiently, the challenges of becoming a net energy exporter by 2040 and a net zero economy by 2050 will be easier to meet.

 

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to cameron@cen.uk.com.

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