Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government argues that soaring energy bills and security concerns should given Ministers the courage to finally talks openly about how we can all save energy in the home

I had a surprise when I walked into the office yesterday – an unexpected package. 

It was a Parliament jumper sent to me by Barry Gardiner MP. I had seen Barry at an event before Christmas and told him I thought of him every day as I piled on the layers to work in my flat – and keep the central heating off. There was no need for the sweater – though it looks fun. Barry has over the years saved me hundreds of pounds – and made me feel very smug.

Reel back to autumn 2007. I was director of strategy and sustainable development at Defra – and Barry Gardiner was a junior minister. One of our programmes was called ‘SD in Defra’ and as part of our staff behaviour change programme, we had just run a consciousness-raising event on what people could do to promote sustainability. We asked people to make a pledge on what they would do – write it on a card, and peg it to a washing line. Mine was that I would not turn my heating on for the rest of the year.

At a ministerial meeting a couple of days later, David Miliband, then Secretary of State, said how impressed he was by my pledge. Barry Gardiner stepped in to burst my smugness bubble. “It’s less impressive than it sounds,” he said, “Jill is going away for a month at the beginning of December.”

“Ok,” I shot back, “I won’t switch it on when I come back”.

And 14 years on, that is why I have had very low energy bills, even after the latest price hikes – and now a nice Parliamentary jumper. Thanks Barry.

There are some reasons why this is less impressive than it looks. I live in a flat – so benefit from heating from the flats either side. But I don’t have curtains or double glazing and would get a pretty bad rating on energy efficiency. I work – so am out much of the day. I do switch a small electric heater on to warm my bedroom to about 14 or 15 degrees (from around 11) before I go to bed – and I have an unhealthily fond relationship with my hot water bottle. I never put the heater on in the morning – a very fluffy dressing gown is enough. And I do – once or twice a winter – put my central heating on. I have never switched supplier – it’s never seemed worth it for the sake of saving a tenner.

The winter lockdown 2021 was a big test. Luckily, it was a warmish winter. But generally I found that multiple layers – unstylish, but functional – and extensive use of the Uniqlo heat tech range was enough to stave off the cold. I was finally forced to invest a few pounds in some insulation to put around a window in my kitchen to stop an icy blast coming in.

This is obviously a personal tale, but there are, I think, some lessons for policymakers.

First, behaviour can change. It takes a shock and some commitment. But, just as over the past decades people have got used to higher temperatures inside their houses, its possible to move in the other direction. I am now more likely to find other people’s houses too warm and overheated. When I was at Defra, we were continually frustrated that “comfort factors” meant that energy efficiency measures delivered fewer emissions reductions than we calculated. The massive energy price shock we are currently experiencing might suggest that its time to recalibrate the price/comfort balance.

But, second, Ministers are far too reluctant to talk about the role of demand as opposed to supply. As Simon Evans of Carbon Brief has set out, demand reduction measures are big quick wins, that deliver the triple bonus of reduced dependence on gas imports, lower bills, and reduced emissions. They require no new tech, no long lead capital investment, no lengthy supply chain or skilling up a new sector. They are literally, there for the taking. All it took was one ministerial meeting and a bit of embarrassment.

But sadly this reluctance to engage with the potential for behaviour change typifies the government’s approach to net zero. The Net Zero Strategy in October was notably silent on any demand management – reticent on active travel or modal shift (EVs sound so much more fun), keen to find a way to allow guilt-free flying (I’m keen on that too), and silent on personal consumption choices.

Moreover, Ministers fear ridicule. Older people will remember the pillorying of Patrick Jenkin as Energy Minister in the 1970s energy crisis for suggesting people clean their teeth in the dark or share baths (or bathwater). This winter, E.ON was forced to apologise for sending socks to their customers (memo to E.ON – I am a customer – very happy to have all your excess socks – but better still make them available to the homeless or incoming refugees).

Maybe, just maybe, the fact that turning the dial down on the radiator, only heating rooms in use, taking a shorter, slightly colder, shower not only offers lower bills but also means we  are doing our small bit of solidarity with desperate Ukrainians without compromising the future of the planet will finally embolden shy Ministers to add behaviour change to their policy arsenal. The demand strategy to complement the prime minister’s new supply strategy.

Many people will think energy saving is not for them. Their health may suffer. They have children; their homes are damp; they spend all their time at home. And such advice does not negate the need for decent support for people who are dreading the huge bills to come. 

But the government needs to summon up the courage to get people to rethink their energy use – just as Barry Gardiner forced me to change my habits all those years ago.

Jill Rutter is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government.

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