Us British are such a reserved lot. Maybe even more so in the Chilterns. Every now and again, for a laugh, some TV program will try to give away free money in the street. Of course it doesn’t work. People are simply too suspicious. This is a considerable barrier because sometimes there really is such a thing as a free lunch; but is it free buffet or snake oil?

Henry Ford is quoted as saying “If I had given people what they wanted they would have had faster horses.” There is a similar story to be told in the Mercedes museum in Germany. There they have a statue of a horse with a wheel on each hoof. It is a joke from the early days of the motoring pioneers. A joke now because everyone either has a car and/or rely upon motor transport. Our entire economy does. It is to easy to mock NOW.

A couple of years ago several local Transition Towns came together to form the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative (“LCCC”). This Co-operative is a member owned & run, not-for-profit, community organisation helping the community to save energy & generate its own clean power. Plain and simple: it invests in community assets. It is run by unpaid volunteers. Although this blog represents my own views (and cannot be said to represent the views of the LCCC) I have to state an interest: I am helping out the Co-operative. I am bringing it to public events through the summer to raise its public profile. I do this because it is a good cause. It is deserving.

I was given the responsibility of raising the LCCC profile in order to start raising investment funds. This (we thought) would be the difficult bit – finding the money. The model is simple, we find investors (lots of small investors, you, me, anyone) who put money into a central pot. That money is invested in energy-saving (or generating) retrofits to modernise community halls in the Chilterns. These are the buildings we all use; for Cubs & Guides, for meetings, receptions, playgroups and for caring for our most needy. The money is paid back through the energy savings and through such Government initiatives as the Feed In Tariff, the Green Deal and the Renewable Heat Incentive. It is much better than money in the bank.

So the LCCC started looking for community-owned buildings in need of (essentially) free money. This is the bit where it becomes tricky; everyone is waiting for “the catch”. The LCCC has been knocking on doors around the Chilterns for nearly a year now with a pot of cash looking for buildings in need of a genuinely free lunch. Not withstanding the reaction of a minority who refuse to answer the LCCC’s emails and letters most welcomed the LCCC warmly. The LCCC quickly started to rack up a long list of interested communities. “Slam dunk!” surely? Bucks County Council thought so and awarded the LCCC some big Society funding to help lubricate the wheels of enterprise.

However, after a year of flat-out hard work the LCCC still has no building to refurbish (yet). Not for want of trying. There are plenty of antiquated buildings just waiting to be snapped up by developers to become the latest Tescos. They can be saved and can serve their communities for years to come. But nobody, as yet, has signed up their building to be retrofitted. So, what is wrong with LCCC money? You would have thought communities would be biting the LCCC’s hands off. There seems to be a certain amount of latent suspicion of anyone offering free money. It seems to good to be true. Some look upon the concept as nothing short of snake-oil – or worse – the sales-pitch of timeshare salesmen. Despite the fact that the LCCC is a NON-PROFIT ran my UNPAID VOLUNTEERS it has been quickly dismissed in some quarters as just another cold-calling commercial organisation.

This is a little disturbing. As sure as night follows day the LCCC will be successful and buildings will be renovated for the benefit of the entire community. Like the fact that people did go out and buy the cars of Henry Ford and Mercedes-Benz there will be buildings valued by their communities enough for them to get them retrofitted. Many communities will embrace the free money. But some very needy candidates will be left behind. What do these experiences tell us about the “low-hanging fruit” of low energy renovations in our built environment?

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has commissioned lengthy and on-going research into public attitudes to such “eco-retrofits”. Their conclusion? People distrust snake-oil salesmen and they don’t trust new technologies. To address the former problem organisations such as the LCCC exist – all manned by unpaid volunteers from our communities. As for the “new technologies” much of it is as ‘hi-tech’ as double-glazing, cavity wall insulation and a new condensing gas boiler. It isn’t rocket science, it requires little or no money up front and it isn’t particularly risky. Yet STILL our culture is shy of performing even the most obvious building improvements even when the money saved makes the decision a no-brainer.

The results of similar energy-saving programs in the USA were revealed in a recent article published at The Inspired Economist web site (

Programs in the U.S. to do energy audits and make concentrated recommendation lists to folks have seen little to no results. The government spent $760 per house, many billions of dollars, to provide free energy audits for households. In addition, to facilitate action, they also offered low/no interest loans for retrofits and a list of qualified contractors that could do things like insulation, weatherization, and the like. The results? Only 6% of people requested audits. Of those, only half acted on the recommendations given by the auditors. Total savings? 2-3%. To make matters worse, people on the waiting list ended up doing 30% of the changes and upgrades before the audit came anyway. So overall, only 1% of the actual energy savings could be attributed to the program at all.”

The Government’s own Green Deal is exactly the sort of program in the UK that is the equivalent of the U.S. program described above. In addition the LCCC is supplying the Chilterns’ community buildings with FREE surveys and the money to make improvements. If the lessons in the USA are anything to go by then the LCCC should in no way be surprised at the reticence of some building managers.

Let’s be very clear: money is NOT a problem. The amount already pledged by LCCC members is in the region of multiple ten-of-thousands-of-pounds. Not surprising really: it isn’t earning any interest in the bank. The Government has supplied multiple funding streams to give those returns on the investment. The LCCC Prospectus offers a 3%+ return on investment (and for one example the actual sums were several percentage points higher). The pipeline of money is there. Clearly, even in times of great austerity, money is NOT a problem. Our culture is. Government incentives and community-lead initiatives will find it hard to make headway unless we recognise that our culture is also a factor.

So how do we overcome? Rationality has nothing to do with this. Investing is the rational thing to do – especially if you are unable to put solar panels on your own roof. Especially if you love your communities too. Our community buildings are crumbling. There is no get-out-of-jail card. But at a time of exceptionally low or zero interest rates we keep our money in the bank and moan because our local village hall is like an ice-block in winter.

No, reason is not enough: we need to be inspired. We need examples to assure people that this is the new normal. To proceed we need to see some simple low-risk leadership. Co-ops like the LCCC are increasingly common and there are many good examples. Others are leading the way and we are getting left behind. That horse isn’t going to get any faster. The LCCC offers what comes next; so, hop on board. Take it for a test drive. See how you like it. It just needs a few forward-thinking folk to do this and soon everyone will want to have a go. The power of example is over-whelming.

If an organisation like the LCCC cannot find buildings in its own communities to invest in then the money will simply go elsewhere – maybe a solar-park or some-such – and that would be a massive shame – wouldn’t it. If we had simply wanted faster horses then the world we lived in today would be a very different place.

Time to press the pedal – to the metal.

You can meet the author and discuss the issues this blog raises with other Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative community volunteers at the following 2013 public events: 14th July (Sunday) Pann Mill, High Wycombe –; 21st July (Sunday) Tring Summer Carnival; 24th/25th August (Sat/Sun) Zero Carbon Show – Thame Showground, Oxfordshire, OX9 3JL (FREE admission 9am to 5pm); 7th September (Saturday) Chalfont St Giles show, Stone Meadow; 8th September (Sunday) Wycombe Harvest in the High Wycombe High Street; 15th September (Sunday) Pann Mill, High Wycombe –; 28th September (Saturday) Chesham Local Produce Market -

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