Nothing about us without us

FPA’s Ruth London reports back from two EU meetings in Brussels, 11 February 2019

In January FPA received an invitation from the person coordinating energy work at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an official body representing Europe’s “organised civil society” inside the EU structures.  

The Committee was holding a session on “energy close to the citizens”, and the European Anti-Poverty Network had pointed out that the planned discussion included big NGOs, but no one with their feet on the ground, “close to the citizens”.  As a member of Europe’s Right to Energy Coalition, Fuel Poverty Action was put forward to bring the discussion down to earth.  

We asked to speak about situations where we’d seen ”green” initiatives conflict with immediate needs.  Kristian Krieger welcomed that focus on “tensions between theory and practice”, “where a green initiative has frictions with objectives linked to social/economic and political equality/empowerment of citizens.” That is, where people are fighting to ensure they can keep warm and pay their bills.

So we were glad to take part, and keen to hear what is being done in the dozens of other countries represented in that hall, where many have a record of trying to raise awareness of fuel poverty.

We were then invited to speak again at a smaller, less formal meeting of  the Permanent Study Group, an internal energy think tank of the EESC.

FPA is a grassroots organisation, currently unfunded, and we’re not used to speaking in the chambers of power, with translation into up to 15 languages.  But we brought a strong message from the UK.

Our points were received with respect and interest at the first session, where we gave examples of policies brought in for the sake of saving carbon, that ended up impacting users badly — and being so unaccountable that in the end, they are not even green.   And where I spoke about pricing needing to be both affordable and fair, and how raising prices — hitting hardest those who can least afford it — is not an acceptable, or a viable way to bring about change(That speech, with examples, is below.)

But it was in the second session that I felt FPA’s experience really made an impact. (also below) I told the story of District Heating in Myatts Field North, and how people had struggled for years to get it working.  I referred to the long fight of Grenfell Tower residents to ensure that their building was not a tinderbox. And I said that in the midst of all the talk about “listening to citizens”, all the focus groups and “consultations”, people who are actively speaking out, shouting, screaming to be heard, and organizing are being systematically ignored, disempowered, disbanded, shut out of their community rooms, or threatened with eviction or the police.

Asked for “solutions” for the EU, I suggested what we have long been pressing in the UK: using funding as a lever, requiring a clean track record from any applicants for new projects, forcing them to clean up disasters they have created before coming back for more.  

In response to the issue of energy prices, I also floated for the first time the idea of a “warm floor” — a certain minimum level of energy that should be available free, or at low cost, to every household, guaranteeing security during a time of transition.  

Our “warm floor” proposal was welcomed (as it was, two days later, at Labour Energy Forum’s public meeting about a Green New Deal) and will be discussed further.  But it was the issue of unaccountability that really struck home, in an assembly that is consulted in the process of developing policies, including those related to funding worth many millions of Euros.  One representative spoke of his relief at the frank discussion; he said some projects he knew of ended up just making profits for criminals. Others identified a need to pay much more attention to “inspection and enforcement”, and how they should look to support not only projects but people’s “campaigns”.  

And one Committee member later proposed that endorsement of FPA’s “Energy Bill of Rights”, as displayed on each member’s monitor throughout this debate, should be a condition for acceptance of new initiatives. I think the Energy Bill of Rights would need some adaptation but we’ve now been invited to actively pursue this proposal with the EESC.  

Both sessions were a crucial learning experience for me, not least for the vision  put forward at the start of the session, of a world of energy “prosumers” producing energy from small renewable sources, sharing it with neighbours and consuming it themselves.  And also for the welcome acknowledgment that “you cannot fundamentally transform energy systems without the consumers and their taking ownership of the process.”

We were very warmly thanked by the EESC energy coordinator, who writes (his emphasis):

Your intervention(s) were very much appreciated by TEN President Pierre Jean Coulon and the members of the TEN Section of the EESC. In fact, this has triggered among members a very strong interest in hearing more from the “sharp end of energy poverty” and campaigning organisations.”  He promises to keep in touch “even though the 29 March may make things a lot more difficult at least for UK-based organisations such as yours.”


“Points of friction”

Speech for European Economic and Social Committee

Brussels 11 February 2019, morning 

FPA is a small unfunded group working with people on the sharp end of fuel poverty, working to amplify their voices and their power. 

In Europe, we’re part of the Right to Energy coalition. I want to thank you for inviting us, it’s great to be here with you all. We’ve been asked to talk about green initiatives clashing with social and economic goals.  I only have time for a couple of examples. 

 

 

District Heating – Heat Networks

In the UK DH is now being heavily promoted and subsidised by the government, because it’s supposed to be greener. I understand heat networks often work very well in Europe, and sometimes they do in the UK.  

But on many housing estates, residents have had DH forced on them, in this case by environmental policy of the GLA.  

On many estates the heating breaks down all the time, leaving people days or weeks without heat or hot water. And the prices can be horrendous. Exceptionally, residents on this one estate, run by Trafford Housing Trust, managed to get their prices cut in half.  

But many other estates have to put up with being ripped off and sometimes paying capital costs as well. 

A lot of residents feel they’re being asked to bear the cost of bringing in a new greener heating infrastructure for London. They don’t see why they should pay! I spoke recently to a Residents Association chairman on a DH estate.  He said “you know, the local authority are worried about the CLIMATE!!”  I said, “I’m worried about the climate too”.  He said, “well so am I” and we both said — “but the heating has to work.” The problem here is that a green policy is being imposed, with no accountability, and no one listens to the people who have to use it.  

And as a result, the network is so inefficient that it is not even green. 

There are very similar issues with heat pumps and smart meters.  I have no time to go into them.

2. My second example is insulation

For most of us insulation has always been the big Win Win – lower carbon, lower cost for residents. What’s not to like? After the Grenfell Tower fire  insulation was removed from tower blocks because of the fire risk, and we started a campaign for Safe Cladding and Insulation Now, because we were worried about people freezing.  In the UK an average of 9-10,000 people die each winter  [17,000 last year] because their homes are cold.  Insulation matters. But. Every month the Grenfell community have a silent march to remember the dead,  and then speeches by survivors and their neighbours.

And one time, I heard a speaker get up and warn everybody —  “Watch out! They are trying to insulate homes in this area.  Whatever you do, don’t let them insulate your home!” That was because the insulation was not only flammable but toxic. The whole area is toxic now, the schools, the playgrounds,wherever smoke went.

And many insulation materials and modern window materials are toxic even when they are not burnt, especially toxic to unborn babies. Also fitting insulation can block ventilation and leave homes damp, worse than before.  There are victims’ groups, of people with insulation fitted badly. Again, the problem is incompetence, corruption, unaccountability, lack of regulation and inspection, and lack of CHOICE. Of course there are many people fighting FOR insulation – but they are being refused!

What counts is not just intention but the reality, not just policy but practice, and whether people have control. 

This affects not only warmth but what people think of climate policies.

3. My third example is Carbon Taxes

I want to speak here not about the carbon price floor but about the so-called “green levies” on people’s energy bills levies that pay for ecological and social measures. The whole levy is only around 10% of energy bills and a lot of it has nothing to do with the environment. But the energy companies and the right wing media act like climate policies are the reason why people can’t afford heating. That is one of the fossil fuel industry’s LIES. It has made headway. Pensioners have told us that climate change is not real, it’s just a con to put up prices.  The movement has been held back decades by that kind of lie. HOWEVER. for many people that 10% IS still a lot of money. People are going cold, and many are also hungry. There’s always an assurance that the government will “protect the vulnerable”. But that means means-testing, and many people, even the poorest, even disabled people who desperately need to keep warm, get excluded from the protection. And even middle class families can find it very hard to pay. Nobody is talking about protecting them.

I know carbon taxes have been the foundation of many countries’ green programmes, not only to raise money but to drive the transition to renewables and energy efficiency. And I know there have been some ideas on how to return the money to the people, different kinds of Energy Dividend, or how to make sure that everyone has access to a basic level of energy, and it’s the high users who pay more, not the low users paying more per unit, like at present. That is something I would really like to explore with you. But the Gilets Jaunes – the Yellow Vests – have forced everyone to look again at the whole strategy.  

I saw M Hulot, ex environment minister in a debate with the Gilets Jaunes on French TV practically begging them, the climate crisis is so serious, we HAVE to have a price signal. But the Gilets Jaunes spokesman had two points. get real, we can’t afford it, he did not believe that carbon taxes would WORK.

The fact is, price increases, through tax or whatever, are inherently unjust. Some people can’t afford to drive to work, but other people fly a private jet. Some people can’t afford to heat one room, but others leave all the lights and heat on in a 10 room mansion, or an office block. It feels like AUSTERITY all over again — working class people being asked to pay for the bank crisis. 

And people internationally are saying NO. Even when “protections” or dividends are there. People don’t see what good it will do for them to suffer when the really big polluters go free 71% of the world’s carbon emissions are caused by 100 corporations,  50% of emissions from consumption are caused by just 10% of people.   The biggest culprits – energy, steel, agriculture, and aviation are often exempt from carbon taxes.  The wealthiest people, and massive corporations have lots of ways to avoid paying tax. 

In the UK the distrust of the government – ANY government – goes very, very deep. The transition we need will not happen without the wholehearted involvement of the population. That is very unlikely when there is such a credibility gap.

I know there have been many very good policies put forward in Europe, including  efforts to involve and reward the public.  But without accountability, and without much more action against the really big polluters, the most powerful interests, you will not get public engagement on the scale we need, if we are going to survive this century. In the meantime I have a lot more examples but out of time. (Later, for instance, I would love to discuss your experience of old rural buildings that cannot be made energy efficient and are off-grid, using oil – another point of contradiction between social goals and climate goals)

But now I will only say this — the words “just transition,” in English at least, usually refer to safeguarding jobs. But a genuinely just transition has to begin at home. 


How can green policies be accountable?

Speech by Ruth London, Fuel Poverty Action

EU energy think tank meeting, Brussels 11 Feb 2019 afternoon

*Please note this speech was slightly edited for clarity and context during and since the event*

Recap – Clashes and Carbon Tax

This morning I gave 3 examples of where there is a clash, or an apparent clash between green policies and economic and social justice. I spoke about where green policies are carried out very badly in practice, about heat networks — installed in the UK with no accountability, so the result is not even energy efficient. And about insulation being installed just as badly — flammable, toxic, or leads to damp. And then I spoke about a form of carbon tax, the “green levies” on our bills in Britain, and I said the levies are actually very small, but still hard for people to afford. And in general, I spoke about how people are rejecting paying any extra to fight climate change when the big polluters are being allowed to carry on doing much more damage.

UK Report – Poverty

I think almost everywhere in the world there is real poverty so even a very small extra cost on your bill really matters. Recently, the UK has changed. I know we’re not poorest in Europe let alone the rest of the world! But a lot of our housing is slums.A lot of people are begging. Asylum seekers are destitute. The new welfare system called UC has systematically targeted disabled people and single mothers. A lot of children are hungry, and millions are cold. And this is before Brexit!  

UK Report – Climate

At the same time in the UK there is a big awakening about climate. Roads being blocked, schools strikes, like everywhere. There is Direct Action being taken against fracking and gas. 85% of public back renewables. 76% support onshore wind, which would be much cheaper than the really high cost nuclear energy they’re forcing us to pay for. But onshore wind has been banned by the government, and they’ve also cut support for household solar panels, community energy and insulation programmes. Instead they are forcing through so-called green initiatives that end up being profitable businesses but really bad for residents.  

More examples of clash

Besides District Heating, a lot of people are having trouble with, Air pumps. Local Authorities put in lot of these Nibe heaters into social housing.  They have good intentions. I think you have Nibe, Swedish company, bet it works in Sweden, but in UK disaster.   In some places they are all having to be removed. Another eg: Smart meters – that show you your consumption in real time. These are being heavily pushed on people. People are worried about radiation, and worried about being disconnected remotely by radio signal if get into arrears. It’s absurd, many of the smart meters they’re putting in now won’t work if you switch supplier; there’s a new kind that will, but they won’t wait for that, there’s a great rush to put them in now to meet targets so they can be said to be doing something green.  Meanwhile no one understands why smart meters are greener in the first place!

We’re all very suspicious. There is absolutely no trust.

Listening to people when they organise

I want to go back to what I ended with this morning – listening to people when they speak and when they organise.  

Myatts field north

I want to tell a story, that I think has implications for EU funding (maybe not in the UK!) Remember the first slide I showed this morning of resistance on a south London housing estate. There are actually two estates, or one broken into two, called Myatts Field North and Myatts Field South. This all used to be served by an old District Heating system, run by the Local Authority, and paid for through rent, at a flat rate. Then Myatts Field North was regenerated, with new modern buildings, that are well insulated. And they created a big community centre with EU funding.  It has exercise classes, a cafe, meeting rooms, and computers, etc. The front desk there is a contact point for problems on the estate and resident engagement. Ok, so, under pressure from an environment-conscious London Mayor, the borough imposed on Myatts Field North a new District Heating system run by E.ON. And the heating didn’t work, and the bills and customer service are horrendous. In fact one elderly gentleman, after going to that community centre front desk again and again about his energy bills, actually died in his cold home.

It hadn’t only been him trying to get heard.  There is a very active Residents Association, you saw one of residents demos.   

This is near Brixton, where there have been riots.  It is a largely Black area, and the Residents Association was led by very active Black women, and they were very effective. So the Residents Association won status as a Monitoring Board for the whole project. And they fought like tigers, they got help from an academic, FPA got involved on the heating front.  We had loads of meetings. We;

  • organised deputations of residents to BEIS – the central government department that is promoting DH, and they listened very hard to the residents, for two hours,
  • brought in Heat Trust – body supposed to represent the interests of DH customers,
  • went to the GLA, the Greater London Authority, which had ordered the Heat Network in first place,
  • documented everything in 100 page long report, Not Fit For Purpose, with the academic.
  • and finally a whole load of residents, and FPA and the academic, went to a big meeting with the head of heat networks at E.ON.  

In the end we did get some improvements – but only improvements.  It is still a terrible system. And in the meantime, the Residents Association and its chair are worn out, exhausted. That matters. The formal  procedures for accountability were there — Monitoring Board had regular meetings in the community hall with the  LA  and the estate management, to call them to account in front of the residents,  who could speak, and did speak.  But they ran into brick walls everywhere.  

Myatts field south

Here’s the irony. At same time, Myatts Field South lost their beloved flat rate District Heating altogether. They fought for it.  People refused to let builders into their flats to put in individual gas boilers. Those people were taken to court. So Myatts Field South fought for DH and lost it, Myatts Field North had it forced on them.

Listening – Organising

We hear a lot of talk about governments listening, reaching out, setting up focus groups. But when people are actually organising, the door is slammed in their face.  

Same with Insulation

It’s the same with insulation and fire safety.  You may know, Grenfell Action Group  had been warning about this fire for years. One of the key recommendations of the Hackitt report into the Grenfell fire is that residents should have access to an independent body with enforcement powers so they can say what’s really going on.  

Of course not everyone organises.  But if there were some protection, some resources and empowerment for groups when they do come together, if there were more VICTORIES, more success, then a lot more engagement would spring up like magic.  

Instead, routinely now Residents Asociations are being dissolved or decapitated or shut out of community rooms.  There are  threats of eviction.  One suspended RA chairman had a letter from his Housing Association threatening to call the police on him because he’d been going door to door delivering a petition.

Same with Fracking

You can see the same thing in a completely different area, fracking protests.  

Massive community organisation, with support of climate activists, has camped for years at the gates of fracking sites. Mobilised thousands of signatures to local authorities, and won – the local authorities came out against fracking. What happens? The government passed a law taking the decision out of their hands and saying central govt will decide on local planning decisions. Meantime people have been arrested, and assaulted, and jailed, for protesting against fracking.  

Europe listening?

I know there’s been a lot of recognition in Europe of the importance of citizen engagement in environmental policies. People are working hard on this. But I wonder if even here, you listen to people when on their own initiative they raise complaints and make demands?

EU funding

Maybe you can think of mechanisms for accountability via EU funding.  Our principle for local and national funding has always been, no company or agency should get funding or planning permission if they haven’t dealt with serious complaints about the schemes they’ve set up already. (a bit like disbarring sex offenders from working with children). I imagine this principle could apply to lots of fields – renewables,, even community energy. Could make a lot of difference to people having confidence in green policies.

Reverse Pricing

I would really appreciate your comments on that, and in addition, I want to ask you another question  — about pricing. In 2014 we issued our Energy Bill of Rights

Number 1: We all have the right to affordable energy to meet our basic needs.

Number 2: We all have the right to energy that does not harm us, the environment or the climate.

And then it says, We all have the right to a fair energy pricing system that does not penalise those who use less. Because with standing charges energy pricing is not only unaffordable but unfair. We pay more per unit if we use less. You might use less because you are trying to save the planet or it might be because you can’t afford it.  Either way, you are penalised.   

Questions

  • Is that normal in EU?
  • Is anyone making proposals to reverse this, so you pay a higher rate if you use more?

Is anyone putting forward a perspective of basic energy a certain ration that everyone’s entitled to free of charge or for very little?  This would provide security in a time of change, until the investment in renewable energy brings the ongoing cost of all energy down to very little.

We are actively considering this. You all are way ahead of us in working on these questions, and I am keen to know what you think.