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Why consumers should be at the heart of net-zero

Dhara Vyas, head of future energy services at Citizens Advice explains why the net-zero transition must balance national coordination and local diversity. 

The Government’s net-zero ambition was always going to require huge changes to the way we use energy — how we heat and power our homes and buildings.

It’s likely that many decisions will need to be made at a local level. More than 300 local authorities have declared a ‘climate emergency’, and a third have developed strategies or have action plans in place to deliver net zero between 2030 and 2050.

Local area approaches to energy offer potential benefits for consumers, including coordinated action when it comes to energy efficiency and low-carbon heat. However, as our new research shows, there’s no single, agreed definition or approach for local area energy strategies — and there’s an urgent need for national coordination and support.

The upcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy will be the first real test of the Government’s commitment to a truly green future. Will it set out a clear, national guidance for all local authorities to deliver the approaches people need?

Risking a postcode lottery

Energy is an essential service — we all need it to live, work, and thrive. Without national coordination, we risk a ‘postcode lottery’ in which some people pay more or miss out on programmes to improve their homes solely because of where they live.

As the official watchdog for energy consumers, we’ve been looking into these approaches to local area energy and the local strategies and action plans to deliver net zero.

We’ve identified three key areas that the Government must focus on:

1. Governance – The decisions taken by local leaders in local energy plans will affect the prices paid by consumers – but our research found governance of local area energy varies a lot. A mix of approaches can be useful and could be a positive reflection of local diversity, but it can make finding who’s responsible for delivering different aspects of a plan difficult. Good governance, transparency and accountability are essential.

2. Public engagement – Conversations with people, businesses, community groups and other stakeholders will be crucial to the success of any local energy plans. We know people want to have a say when it comes to things that have an impact on their lives – particularly when it comes to making changes to their homes. But our research found local authorities and other organisations involved have struggled to meaningfully engage with local people. Limited time and resources have led to inconsistency which must be tackled.

3. Cost – When it comes to how the UK will reach net-zero, cost is always a hot topic. The Government has to be clear and transparent about how we’ll pay for big changes to the way we generate, transport and use energy. This is as true at the local level as it is nationally. Our researchers struggled to find much information about the costs of local energy plans. These costs are ultimately paid for by people — whether by energy bills or taxes – and everyone has a right to know what they’re paying for and what benefits they will get. Making information about costs transparent can also help to find and achieve efficiencies where possible — like avoiding duplication, or highlighting opportunities for collaboration across different areas where appropriate.

Consumers should be at the heart of net-zero

People must be at the centre of local area energy plans, not an afterthought. Good, considered and meaningful engagement with local people and groups should result in energy plans that understand and can anticipate the needs of local people. The government needs to make clear it expects local bodies to engage with local people – but it also needs to support them to do that.

There’s a huge difference between a local authority with a dedicated budget and team of energy experts and one that has no dedicated resources or staff. Investment and expertise will without a doubt have an impact on the success or failure of the differing approaches to local area energy.

The lack of information and general transparency around the financial aspects of local energy plans is a significant concern. The government should expect local authorities and their partners to be clear and transparent about this.

We’re calling for a framework that requires consistency across the country when it comes to governance. This is vital to ensure the right partners and agencies are included in the planning process. The Heat and Buildings Strategy is the perfect opportunity to do this.

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