A small British town.Britain’s housing stock: charming but leakyPhoto courtesy UGArdener via FlickrPrime Minister David Cameron’s call for Brits to take up the challenge of government by joining what he calls the “Big Society” exists so far largely in the realm of rhetorical flourishes. The political appeal is obvious: Maybe we can get communities to do stuff — like run schools, or care for children, or protect the environment — that government can no longer afford. With Chancellor George Osborne’s first budget this week setting out how much worse it is going to get, the appeal will get stronger still. Some commentators have their doubts about the potential of volunteering to tackle our problems at scale, and others argue that the budget will actually hamper social enterprise, a key element of the big-society approach. The government has spent a fair amount of time thinking about how big society might work, but it remains to be seen whether they can encourage well-meaning citizens into action.

Take moving to low-carbon energy.  One of the greatest challenges in the U.K. is the housing stock — the most energy inefficient in Europe, and responsible for 60 percent of emissions from the built environment here. Energy use in housing has actually risen in the last 20 years, with emissions only remaining stable because of the increasing use of gas as a primary heating source and fuel. And most of these terrible houses will still be with us in 2050 when we are to have achieved an 80 or 90 percent reduction in emissions. 

With retrofit the priority, the question is, who’s going to do it? The big utilities are interested but have so far struggled to find a business model that reduces demand for their product and still stacks up. The regulatory barriers to them providing energy services and offering energy-efficiency measures to householders as part of a package are largely gone, and some, including British Gas, are experimenting with various new technologies and service models in the demand-management space. Despite these promising efforts, progress generally is slow, and for most of the big energy “incumbents,” there’s little incentive to change the energy game fundamentally.

The “big society” answer to the retrofit challenge is for communities to form associations that provide a route to the finance and practical measures that individual households find difficult to achieve on their own. It’s an increasingly popular approach, and in my town of Oxford, there is one of the most advanced such groups, Low Carbon West Oxford, which is rapidly scaling up retrofitting of households and finding ways to finance community-scale energy schemes. Examples like this are very encouraging — but they require enormous effort on the part of the founding members. Oxford is perhaps Britain’s most middle-class city, so there is a fair amount of participants’ “linking” social capital being leveraged. A new group, Low Carbon Oxford North, is forming around my kitchen table at the moment, with the founders including the chair of an environment think tank, a senior sustainability consultant, and a seasoned environmental fundraiser. If the model for change is that this sort of group will happen everywhere, it’s not obvious who is going to form them in the run-down housing estates of Birmingham, Liverpool, and East London.

The grease in the wheels of all this should, of course, be local government. Municipalities are nothing more than the formal expression of “big society” and are the obvious enablers of a community-based low-carbon energy transition. So are they stuck in to this challenge? In some respects, yes. Councils such as Woking are doing a lot to help their citizens step up. But in my personal experience, in others, there’s still a long way to go.

Six years ago, I built Cheltenham’s first eco-house. Back then, I hoped the energy-efficiency plans I had would be of interest to Cheltenham Council, given their many policies on sustainability, so it was a surprise to discover the plans had absolutely no bearing on the council’s planning decisions. This year I am renovating a house in Oxford, and had aimed for PassivHaus standards, showcasing how it could be done in a typical English suburban house. Part of my plan was to put solar power on the roof. I imagined times had changed, and that the planners would now be insisting that I include such measures, so it was a shock to discover last week that, according to Oxford city council’s development control officers, solar power is still not part of their planning decisions, except when they have concerns about it being “ugly.”

As we lag behind every nation in Europe apart from mighty Luxembourg in our generation of renewable energy, it’s surprising to learn that matters of opinion on the appearance of a house from the street might still trump the need to tackle climate change in the realpolitik of Oxford decision making. I will probably persist with my crazy green dreams because, hey, that’s the eco-warrior creed, but were I the average citizen thinking of joining the big society and looking for an encouraging sign, this would not be it. In fact, I would give up straightaway. The idea that we will achieve 90 percent carbon reduction in this context is clearly a pipe dream, a bit like winning the World Cup: a very popular idea, but no real belief or convincing plan that could make it a reality. 

I’m reminded of Billy Bragg’s song “The Home Front,” which takes a look at British ambition and concludes that “our place in history is as clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers.” It’s too early to write off the big society, but we have to be realistic about the barriers and the potential scale of community action. That said, with unemployment heading for record numbers, there are going to be an awful lot of Brits with time on their hands in the coming years. Maybe they hold the key to Britain’s retrofit question.