The phrase ‘Small is Beautiful’ was not coined by Fritz Schumacher, but by his publisher. The phrase was evocative and in a period of modernism in which architecture, development and media focused on the big, it helped to conjure up a different path of human-scale living. There are writers such as David Boyle today, who understand that, even more so in a networked society and economy, that scale – and scope – matters.
But Fritz Schumacher’s own view was better captured in his statement that “we need freedom and order: the freedom of lots and lots of small units and the order of large-scale, possibly global, organisation.” It just wasn’t a better book title.
Nowhere is this more true than for energy policy.
As I and colleagues in our new ‘social economy alliance’ wrote to the national press yesterday, “this debate cannot be about big state versus big business, but about big problems versus big opportunities.” It has been good to see Labour on the front foot on this as a consumer issue. Good to see, too, Co-operative Energy provide independent backing from within the industry.
Last year, I delivered a Consumer Policy Investigation at Labour’s request, arguing that issues of consumer power and living standards ought to be top of the agenda for any government.
But actually, it is a less headline grabbing announcement on energy – from Ed Davey and the Coalition Government – that I think is more important.
Over the last two years, led by my colleague Becky Willis, Co-operatives UK has been working with our members and partners to promote the potential for community and co-operative energy – small-scale initiatives that can start to think big. In particular, after a series of reports and research with our members, we led on the development of a manifesto for the sector – now signed up up to by a wide and welcome range of organisations across national life.
We challenged the burden of big regulation on small providers. For example, to get electricity from their powerhouse to the grid, a distance of 100 yards, we learned that River Bain Hydro had to negotiate with five different bodies, including the network operator, its subcontractor, the metering contractor, the energy supplier and Ofgem. The inspiring co-operative, OVESCo in Sussex started generating electricity in 2011 and, eight months later, had not received a penny in tariff payments due, despite completing three stages of registration and enquiry from Ofgem.
We called for a standard model of documentation to be produced, along the lines of the standardised conveyancing documentation and system for property transactions. It was one of the key campaign calls in a Community Energy Fortnight, now closed with a coalition which garnered mass public support – with over 60,000 people signing petitions in favour of clean, green and co-operative energy.
This will now happen. On 17th Oct, DECC is hosting a summit of government agencies to start the ball rolling.