These programmes¹ are examples, like the EU-ETS, where government intervention hands commercial advantage to the VILE (Vertically-Integrated Large Energy) companies, to little beneficial effect.

The VILE companies point to the fact that demand for domestic energy has fallen in the last couple of years, as evidence for their success. I have argued this was largely a response to price increases, increasing disparities between costs-of-living and disposable income, and warmer winters (until last year), and not the effect of their energy-efficiency programs. In my opinion, the timing demonstrates the point. EEC was introduced in 2002, and Warm Front in 2000, but domestic energy demand carried on rising until 2005², which coincidentally was when global wholesale gas prices spiked (consumers did not feel the full effect until Winter 06/07, but there was already concern and initial increases in 2005).

It is difficult to prove the relative significance of different factors on this basis. The VILE companies can argue that it would take time for the modifications funded by EEC and Warm Front to accumulate and their effect to be felt. But a small news item in last week's New Statesman offers a pretty clear way to assess which was the more significant factor. If efficiency improvements were the main factor, so the elderly and underprivileged (the main targets of these programs) could maintain a decent temperature whilst consuming less energy, you would expect excess winter deaths to fall. If the price rise was the main factor, so people were choosing to heat their houses less because of the cost, you would expect excess winter deaths to rise.

According to the New Statesman, "excess winter deaths rose by 49 per cent in England and Wales last year in comparison with the year before." The information appears to have come from a page on the National Statistics website.

To be fair, 2008 was a colder winter than 2007. The UK average number of degree-heating days was around 9% higher (2809 in 2008, 2570 in 2007, according to Eurostat). But the number of excess deaths in 2008/9 was also higher than at any time since 1999/2000, yet the period 2000-2003 was colder on average than last year, during which period excess winter deaths were at a similar level to 2007/8. If the improvements to the homes of the elderly and poor had had much of an effect, surely excess mortality should have been lower in 2007/8 and 2008/9, not similar in 2007/8 despite the warmer winter, and higher in 2008/9?

The point, of course, is not that energy-efficiency is ineffective or inefficient (quite the opposite), but that:

1. Delivering it by supply push from the companies who have the greatest incentive to neutralize its effect, rather than by demand pull, is counterproductive, and is likely to result in installations that are the cheapest way to hit the targets whilst having the smallest effect on energy demand (i.e. a dreadful waste of taxpayers' money), and

2. The policy of trying to deal with poverty by artificially suppressing prices of certain goods such as energy is ineffective in the face of wholesale price-rises, which are made increasingly likely if demand is higher than necessary (and efficiency lower than could easily be achieved) because prices of the goods that we need to use more efficiently are held artificially low.

It looks like we can attribute around 12,000 premature deaths last winter to the corporatist compact of New Labour and the VILE companies, aided by the complicity of the opposition parties in not just failing to challenge but actually supporting this immoral, illogical, failed approach to energy and welfare policy.


¹ EEC = Energy Efficiency Commitment; CERT = Carbon Emissions Reduction Target; CESP = Community Energy Savings Programme. They are a series of programmes to provide energy-efficiency and/or (latterly) renewable-energy upgrades to domestic properties, targeting a high proportion of underprivileged households. They are delivered by placing obligations on the VILE companies, who thereby control what work is done and who does it. Warm Front is a similar programme for upgrading the homes specifically of the elderly. It is a grant scheme rather than an obligation, and therefore theoretically accessible without going via the VILE companies, but in practice, it is largely delivered through them.

² Most of the data here are taken from the Eurostat energy databases.