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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 23rd September 2011
Now, here’s an offer you can’t refuse – easy greening of your premises, cutting down heat-loss and CO2 emissions, and really helping the hard-pressed economy. What could be better? And you don’t have to pay at the start – or ‘upfront’ as the jargon has it. Instead, the Government is legislating for the cost to be recovered through your energy bill over a number of years – the energy equivalent of paying your tuition fees after you’ve graduated.

This is ‘The Green Deal’ – a measure included in the Energy Bill introduced into Parliament in December last year. A useful summary of the proposals is contained in a publication from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). In its ‘Executive Summary’ it says, ‘Put simply, the Government is establishing a framework to enable private firms to offer consumers energy efficiency improvements to their homes, community spaces and businesses at no upfront cost, and recoup payments through a charge in instalments on the energy bill.’

The charge stays with the property – so if you move, whoever takes on your house or business will pay the charge, as part of their bill. You will not be able to benefit from the Green Deal if the expected financial savings from the work that is carried are less than the work itself will cost.

All this, of course, is intended to help the country to achieve the vital changes in carbon emissions – to ‘save the planet’. We are all aware that we need to use less energy; we are probably familiar with those pictures taken by thermal imaging cameras that show in blue, green, yellow, orange and red just how much heat our houses lose through lack of proper insulation.

So, if there is an easy way to pay for making buildings more energy-efficient, by adding insulation, installing solar panels, fitting efficient boilers, for example, we should welcome them with open arms, shouldn’t we?

Well, up to a point. Anything that helps to make us more aware of our responsibilities is welcome – and the days when central or local government gave us money in the form of grants for insulation are past. There are some caveats, though.

Among the rules that will govern provision of such improvements are two that refer to the providers and assessors of the scheme. They have to be accredited to offer the Green Deal. The DECC says confidently that ‘the robust accreditation processes we are proposing should increase confidence in the market. In this context, we anticipate that the involvement of a diverse market of local and national firms of all sizes with their strong customer insight will find interested customers more effectively than any top-down Government scheme.’

Of course they will – companies will be falling over themselves to get at potential customers who are persuaded by the Green Deal to have their premises insulated or provided with solar panels. You can expect to be inundated with offers to come along and assess your house (this is free) and to sign you up for the scheme (for which you will pay). For some of us, it may be just the thing we really need – an easy push into something that we can see is necessary, for no initial outlay and a disguised pay-back through bills we pay anyway.

As with most such broad-brush schemes, the Green Deal might suit quite a lot of buildings – but not all. Houses of standard construction that can easily take loft insulation and other measures to make them more energy-efficient will benefit. But not every building fits into this category.

What happens if you live in an older building that doesn’t happen to sit comfortably with the straightforward measure that most providers will be happy with? It will be a sure bet that the some of the companies offering to do your work will still try to persuade you that it can be done, without having full regard for the implications for the historic fabric of your building.

It is this aspect of the Green Deal that is worrying many people. There have been letters to the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, and to ‘The Times’ from a wide range of bodies, including the Church of England, the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), arguing that historic buildings need different treatment.

Unless your installer is a specialist in older buildings, you might well be persuaded that their solution is what you need, when, in fact, it can be storing up problems for you. As SPAB points out in its latest newsletter, ‘older buildings behave in a different way from modern constructions. Above all they work by breathing. Seal them up and there can be real problems over what happens to all the moisture we generate as part of modern living.’

The problem with the Green Deal is not so much with listed buildings, which will require consent before such works can be carried out. Much more vulnerable are buildings constructed before about 1919 that are not protected by listing – the sort of buildings that Ripon has plenty of at its heart. These are the ones where it will be too easy for suppliers to offer insulation methods or materials that are just not suitable – and the damage that is done may take some years to become apparent, long after the work is paid for and, perhaps, the business has departed.

The Green Deal scheme is scheduled to come into operation from next year, and by 2020 the DECC estimates that about 14 million householders will have qualified for the scheme, with each spending up to £10,000. But £10,000 spent wrongly could lead to many more thousands in damage repair.

So look out for the Green Deal – it could be useful to you; but be aware also that it is not without its pitfalls, and that not all the sales literature with which you will be presented will necessarily have the good of your property at heart.

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