Citizen-led approaches to municipal retrofit in Plymouth

This article was initially published by Laura Williams from Carbon Co-op in the framework of mPower. mPower is a European-wide project to facilitate peer learning between municipalities interested in developing citizen-focused energy projects and services.

As part of our work, this month we organised a study visit to Plymouth for the members of our mPower peer learning group on energy efficiency retrofit, made up of representatives from the local authorities in Nis (Serbia), Dobrich (Bulgaria), San Sebastian (Spain) and Plymouth (UK). During the three day visit we explored areas of common interest, balancing energy efficiency targets with social value impacts, potential roles for different actors, how to ensure quality works and financing. With Plymouth Council and their partners at Plymouth Community Energy having developed a series of innovative energy projects we felt that the city would be a great place to begin our programme!

Gaining trust

We started with a session led by Plymouth Energy Community (PEC), a community benefit society set up with the support of the council in 2012. We found it really interesting to hear about how the Council played a crucial role in establishing this organisation by making staff time available to support its development, funded the creation of a business plan and supported the recruitment drive for 100 founding members. Both organisations now work closely on new projects with staff working across both. Hearing that this approach hadn’t just worked as a one off was really heartening. There are now 23 cooperatives active, many of whom benefited from the Council’s match funding scheme for new socially driven organisations. The city now has plans to double the size of the social enterprise sector by 2025 through their newly announced strategy and investment pot.

City representatives from Dobrich (Bulgaria) & Nis (Serbia)

At Moments Cafe, we turned our conversations to how PEC has worked to engage local people. Alongside energy service beneficiaries and advisors, we talked about the need to listen to lived experience and build services that meet the local community’s needs. Of those that have engaged with Plymouth’s energy programmes 66% report having a disability or long-term illness and 50% depression and/or anxiety. The group drew parallels with their cities and reflected on the need to show sensitivity to circumstance. We felt that a ‘one size fits all’ strategy simply won’t work if we are serious about improving the energy efficiency of all homes across Europe. The ‘able to pay’ market would need one approach, those in fuel poverty another.

Quality, quality, quality!

On the second day we reflected on the experience of retrofit across the UK. Journalist Kate De Selincourt shared how the recent experience of flawed energy efficiency schemes, such Fishwick Road in Preston, where poorly delivered, target driven, energy supplier-funded works left home in ruins and contributed towards a climate of distrust felt towards retrofit programmes. Experiences of cavity wall and external wall insulation cowboys offering poor quality works had already created the grounds for such an attitude and recent disaster stories have only worked to deepen the distrust. Anyone trying to establish new schemes in the UK will have to face these barriers and work to rebuild trust, although others in our group also reflected that similar barriers were present back at home. The PEC approach gave us some idea of how to build relationships. For one householders,  PEC’s genuine interest in her home was what made her pick up the phone when their leaflet came through her letterbox. Having received a household visit, she has now completed a number of ‘easy to do’ energy saving measures.

Community buy in

A similar story was heard at our visit to see a huge 4.1 MW community-owned Ernsettle solar array that PEC had helped to establish. On the hill overlooking the farm a developer-led solar project had promised to share community benefits, yet years on none had materialised. The community were therefore naturally skeptical when PEC proposed a new solar venture in the blast zone of the local Ministry Of Defence storage units. But when PEC offered shares and governing rights to the local community attitudes changed. We were really impressed with how community control had been weaved holistically throughout the project with the local people having a say in how funds could be spent to improve their area.

Beyond carbon

Moving beyond climate narratives towards a focus on improving quality of life threaded through many of our conversations. We learned how positive health impacts are one route to explore. One example from Carmarthen demonstrated that after 3,000 homes were retrofitted there was a reduction in the number of individuals being admitted into hospital. Some in the UK are starting to pay attention to this with Gloucestershire Health Service providing funds for the Warm and Well programme. We felt that these messages could be useful in promoting thee wider uptake of energy efficiency measures.

Engaging residents

We also talked of the wider social value that retrofit projects can bring. At Wilmcote House in Portsmouth, local authority-owned flats had originally been earmarked for demolition due to their poor condition. Council staff reviewed the proposal and suggested the cost of retrofit would be much lower and lead to more positive outcomes for residents with no need for disruptive relocation. In planning the works a hands on approach was taken with Council staff opening up a demo flat for people to see the effect of the works, energy education sessions and meaningful opportunities for feedback. Resident-led suggestions such as ensuring there would be a space for airing clothes were incorporated into the final plans, demonstrating how the retrofit could create additional positive impact on tenants’ lived experiences. This showed in the end of project review with tenants remaining supportive of the Council’s overall approach and their bills falling by an average of £700 a year. The lasting relationship built between the Council and residents really impressed us, shining a light on how retrofit can generate real, socially progressive outcomes.

A climate emergency context?

Our visit to Plymouth left the group with lots to think over. Whilst there is a real sense that Plymouth’s co-operative vision gives hope to doing development differently, achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 target as set within their recently passed climate emergency bill is still a long way off. With questions of how to scale up current retrofit efforts, ensure quality of work, develop the supply chain and create financially viable retrofit options, there is still lots to be explored. At least in Plymouth there’s a foundation to build on as they move together as a community to define how they should act in a time of emergency.

The study visit gathered representatives from Energy Cities members Dobrich (Bulgaria), Nis (Serbia), San Sebastian (Spain) as well as Plymouth.

A big thanks to everyone at Plymouth Council and Plymouth Energy Community who hosted us and to all the expert witness speakers and participants.



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