Dr James Hannam has a PhD is the History of Science from the University of Cambridge and is the author of “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009)”.
You’ve probably heard of the Green Deal. It’s a scheme whereby the Government is fire-hosing cash around to encourage us to make our homes more energy-efficient- or at least, that’s what I thought. But the truth is rather different. It turns out that the Government is spending very little money, but plenty of members of the public are being quietly skimmed. This is a real scandal.
Remember those emails from a fake Nigerian widow or government official looking for a safe haven for their cash. The scam is to lure the victim into paying a relatively small amount of money upfront as an “arrangement fee” in exchange for the promise of a much bigger (but non-existent) payoff later. The Green Deal works in much the same way. The Government is promising thousands of pounds for home improvements (which most of us will never see) – but you have to pay a non-refundable arrangement fee first.
In this case, the fee is for a Green Deal Assessment. That is a report on the energy efficiency of your home which costs £100 to £150. Loads of small-scale operations have sprung up to provide them. And, according to government figures, over 200,000 of us have paid for one. The net effect has been to lift about £25 million from the pockets of the general public and transfer it to the various assessors. They are making a nice little living from this.
Here’s my story: our boiler is old and inefficient. It is drinking oil faster than a Eurocrat can swill champagne, as well as spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Replacing it would be expensive but, under the Green Deal, the Government would pay £310 towards that cost. I could also get £100 for an up-to-date thermostat, £250 towards cavity wall insulation and a whooping £4,000 towards solid wall insulation.
This sounded good. But I had to pay the arrangement fee for a Green Deal Assessment first. I got mine from a charming husband and wife team in Kent. They could not have been more helpful and efficient. My report, for which I paid £150, arrived promptly. It recommended various improvements including replacing the old boiler with a new condensing one. All I had to do was to find an installer and apply for my cashback.
At that point, things started to go wrong. Firstly, you have to find a registered installer. You can’t just use the local plumber you know and trust. The Green Deal installers themselves, being bigger companies with the staff to deal with all the paperwork, are already more expensive than your local Polish builders. Then, you have to apply for your cashback. But there are loads of conditions in the small print. I found I had to get cavity wall insulation for an extension to the house in order to qualify for cashback on a new boiler. So I needed to spend £1,500 more than I had budgeted for. Then it turned out I couldn’t get the cashback for a new boiler at the same time as for a thermostat, even though I was getting both fitted.
So I was left with a useless piece of paper for which I had paid my (sincere and conscientious) assessors £150. Just burning the money would have been quicker (if not quite carbon neutral). Like the Nigerian email con, the big payoff never materialised. Admittedly, the Green Deal is a small-scale rip off. But it is Government-sponsored rip off that has caught out a lot of people. Of the 210,000 people who have had Green Deal Assessments, just 12,000 have gone on to actually make their homes more environmentally friendly under the scheme.
The boiler installer from whom I asked a quote said they had not had a single enquiry about the Green Deal in the six months since he registered. The minister in charge, Greg Barker MP, has reacted to the low take up rate by upping the money available. Sadly, this is just the equivalent of the fake Nigerians adding another zero to the riches they promise in their scam emails. To get the big money, you need to fit solid wall insulation – which, believe me, you do not want. And the latest iteration of cashback promises has removed the incentive to replace oil-fired boilers like mine.
I’ve still got my old boiler. If I replace it, I’ll be using a cheap and reliable local firm. No doubt, a government spokesman could explain all the excellent features of the Green Deal that I haven’t availed myself of. It doesn’t matter. Like so many government schemes, this one doesn’t work in practice. A take-up rate of five per cent is a failure however you cook the figures. Actually, I don’t mind governments trying new things even if they don’t always work. But in this case, about 200,000 of us are a hundred quid poorer. I can’t be the only one who is angry about this.