‘There is no immediately logical to the things that I have done; I’ve seen opportunity and run with it,’ he says. That explains why he jumped at the chance to work for a geneticist at the University of Western Ontario in the 70s, produced Tony Blair style answer machine messages with impressionist John Culshaw in the 90s, spent £200,000 transforming a half derelict dairy farm into a showcase of green technologies in the noughties and recently set up a community interest company, Community Works, to forge and support low carbon initiatives and shift the national psyche towards community based ‘green’ energy.
His ‘multi-use’ home, which doubles up as a conference venue (he makes chocolates for delegates), features wind turbines, solar panels and ground source heat pumps as well as an orchard and vegetable gardens. The entire 500m2 of floorspace uses less energy than a typical suburban semi and generates more than £10,000 a year selling 20 tonnes of energy to the National Grid and from feed-in tariffs – 30p p/kWh from their large wind turbine and 50p p/kWh from solar panels – which were radically scaled back earlier this year.
Subsidies, he believes, are vital in stimulating markets. ‘A key role of governments, local authorities, LEPs and so on is to come in where markets are not working and help break patterns of behaviour. It gets people aware of the fact that we can take control of our energy and that has a positive benefit for communities.’
Unfortunately, Sheffield’s local enterprise partnership (LEP) didn’t see it that way. In 2014 it published a growth plan that contained barely a nod to the low carbon imperative in whose service he’d toiled for several years, personally and as a board member of the low carbon group.
Sitting in his living room in Stannington, where Sheffield greets the Peak District, he admits it knocked him and the entire low carbon group. But once the red mist had cleared he saw a huge opportunity: £20m available under the 2014-2020 European Regional Development Fund squarely targeted at low carbon initiatives, which no-one seemed to know quite how to spend.
‘Around the country LEPs and local authorities have had difficulty getting projects together to take advantage of this, partly because they are unprepared, partly because the way the programmes have been designed has put people off,’ he explains.
‘So in the last year I’ve been gathering together people with particular expertise in order to be a central resource for LEPs to push the low carbon agenda throughout the country. We’ve got experts on energy management, banking and different parts of the low carbon agenda to advise on how to get projects to work and how to stimulate markets.
‘That team will sit the heart of the projects but then in each locality we will work with local authorities, universities and the business community to make projects fit each area. We want more business activity in low carbon, more reductions in energy demand from businesses and more renewable energy production in local areas.’
Thus far two projects have made it through the initial stage of approval, one in Cornwall and the other in the Sheffield city-region. Teesside is likely to be next in line. He and his team, including Terry McGivern, who until recently was a senior director of Institute of Sustainability in London, are working around the country to develop a network of similar projects: Greater Lincolnshire, Cheshire and Warrington, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, the Marches, Stoke, the list goes on.
‘There is now a huge enthusiasm amongst local authorities and LEPs,’ he says, adding, ‘It is a good idea.’ The relatively small sums involved aren’t, to his mind, an obstacle to big change.
If the full Sheffield bid, due to be submitted in August, is successful they will get just £3.5m. ‘You can’t do a lot with that, you can’t build lots of new anaerobic digestion plants or whatever. It is about taking away obstacles, getting the markets together and stimulating activity. We will drive this forward and we will have an impact.’ And in the fullness of time that impact could be felt way beyond the reaches of low carbon.
‘One of the great things about the low carbon agenda is that it is a drawer together of people because it is about mutual benefit. So it is a great driver of other benefits that are going to make the world a better place rather than a worse place.
‘Get the money away from the big banks, get it into the community, recycle it for community benefit, recycle it for enterprise locally so that profits don’t leak out to shareholders, rethink the whole structure of that but put it on a proper enterprise footing. It cannot be run by government, it cannot be run by local authorities but the values that drive it are about where the profits go. Pay managers a fair wage but they don’t get shed loads of money,’ he states. And that sounds suspiciously like a masterplan.
Find out more: greendirections.co.uk