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Tony Hawkhead: why it's vital to put green jobs at the centre of Britain's economy

Tony Hawkhead

19th November, 2010

To make Chris Huhne's 'Green Deal' a success - and meet the UK's carbon reduction targets - we need to redefine the green jobs sector and build the connection between individuals and environment, says Groundwork's chief executive

No longer niche, specialist employment requiring extensive scientific knowledge, green jobs are now regarded as a pivotal part of building a sound economic base for the future. All the major parties agree that we need to move towards a green economy and develop the skills amongst our young people right now in order to do this successfully.

While the government has made it clear that it wants to ‘make work pay’ and has announced plans to provide support to those facing the greatest barriers to employment through the Work Programme, I believe more could be done to bring green jobs into the mainstream of helping people into work. 

Skills are an issue, and perhaps this is part of the problem – how we define a green job. The term still conjures up images of scientific PhD educated graduates. We need them too of course but the reality is work across a wide skills range, some of which are far more accessible.

Groundwork has been running employment schemes since the 1980s and delivers hundreds of employment, skills and training programmes across the country, usually working with people who have given up hope of being able to get a job. Our experience shows that these entry-level green jobs can give those with multiple barriers to employment the skills, confidence and experience needed to get their foot on the first rung of the employment ladder.

Connecting individuals and environment

The kind of green jobs include energy efficiency advisers, neighbourhood caretakers, land management workers, gardeners and recycling workers. These are jobs that help create a connection between individuals and the environment, jobs that are environmentally useful as well as important to residents, jobs which help foster a sense of responsibility for the community and the physical neighbourhood around them.

Our ‘Offshoots’ permaculture project in Burnley shows how green employment can work. The project – recently filmed by the BBC’s Politics Show as an example of reducing unemployment in a town where one person in every eight is on Incapacity Benefit– provides eco therapy together with employment skills and training support to the most disadvantaged.   

Offshoots is a thriving fruit and vegetable garden and training centre. The site holds courses and workshops for the general public focusing on permaculture, sustainability, eco-building techniques, recycling and composting.

It also provides a training environment and works with young people and people with learning difficulties and mental health issues. The work and experience provided to them by the outdoor environment of Offshoots helps them to grow in confidence and independence. Combined with this new feeling of self-worth and the skills and experience they have gained from the project, the individual feels confident enough to re-enter employment.

Rehabilitation

This approach works. Paul Fisher, in his early 30s, suffered a brain injury 10 - 15 years ago that left him incapable of finding work. After taking part in Offshoots he has worked hard to get back into employment and is now a teaching assistant at a local school.

Another key area for green growth is making our homes more energy efficient. As the cold starts to bite and the temptation to nudge the heating up seems more attractive than reaching for another woolly jumper, now, more than ever, people will be nervously waiting for the arrival of their fuel bills. 

Five million people spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating and they are facing the prospect of another long winter of fuel poverty. And, lest we forget, fuel prices are rising again. 

There’s a huge body of work ahead in retrofitting domestic properties to reduce their 27 per cent share of the nation’s carbon emissions and I was interested to read Chris Huhne’s announcement that by 2015 up to 100,000 Green Deal workers could be employed in the effort to upgrade Britain’s homes.

The roll out of smart meters across the UK is a great opportunity to influence people’s behaviour and reduce CO2 emissions. If planned right, a visit to every home and the replacement of around 40 million meters could make real inroads into public awareness of energy consumption.

Fuel poverty

I believe firmly, however, that householders would benefit from targeted support alongside these meters – especially the most vulnerable householders at risk of fuel poverty. After all, a house filled with shiny energy saving tools cannot save energy if the householder doesn’t know how and why they should use those tools – and what the benefits are.  Initiatives that give personalised support to the most vulnerable residents can help them to understand how changing their behaviour can save money while also reducing carbon emissions. 

Last year, Groundwork commissioned a survey asking people who should install energy efficiency measures in their homes. We found, as you might expect, people wanted someone they felt was on their side – which they don’t feel is always the energy company. 

I’m not calling for an army of energy ‘experts’ – what we need are trained, dependable and independent advisors to explain things in a language householders can easily understand. We needed trusted messengers to lay out the options and to help people take charge of the technology.  

Groundwork’s ‘Green Doctors’ are fully trained experts who help vulnerable residents in disadvantaged communities to improve their energy efficiency and consequently save money through energy-use audits and retrofitting.

Given the enormous challenge the UK faces to deliver legally binding carbon reduction targets and ensure the country adapts to climate change, schemes such as Green Doctor have an important role to play in helping as many people as possible participate in the ‘Green Deal’. 

Tony Hawkhead is Chief Executive of Groundwork, a national environmental charity that helps people and organisations make changes in order to create better neighbourhoods, to build skills and job prospects and to live and work in a greener way. 

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