Local authorities have demonstrated that they can pursue far-reaching, broad-based energy conservation objectives and realize significant benefits. Where this has occurred, among a very small percentage of authorities, it has been as much in spite of central government's efforts as a consequence of them.
Local authorities are caught in a vicious circle. Generally, their involvement has been oriented toward their own premises. This orientation is reinforced by the hegemony of the technical determinism and monetary criteria pervading much of the energy conservation debate. Further, it has been aided and abetted by the present tone of central/local relations and the messages emerging from the DEn. Technical measures are more readily quantifiable in financial terms than measures such as energy advice and education. Beyond an authority's own premises, energy conservation investment will not provide a direct, cost- effective return. Yet, because their orientation is focused strongly on their own premises, energy conservation will remain a technical issue, evaluated in financial terms. The consequence is that energy conservation will continue to have a low political priority, and the wider social benefits will go wanting.
The message emanating from central government is inappropriate if local authorities are going to realize their potential. Exhortation fails to recognize the many institutional constraints facing local authorities--conflicting messages from central departments, legislative obstacles, the dominance of the supply industries, the lack of adequate financial incentives, the financial uncertainty, and the government's fluctuating commitment to energy conservation. Local authority freedom to determine its own priorities has been subsumed within the wake of central government's enduring drive to reduce public expenditure.
A more positive approach to pursuing energy conservation could occur through utilization of the multifarious responsibilities, roles, and functions embodied within local authorities. To date, this has not occurred. Central government has refused to designate, or even recognize, that local authorities could perform such a function. Central government has pursued its pricing policy, supported by exhortation, while refusing to replicate the conditions that have enabled authorities to be actively involved with energy conservation previously. These circumstances ignore the potential contribution to national policy objectives, ensuring that their role remains marginal.