How the church can help deliver community energy projects: Bishop of Derby speaks on the Infrastructure Bill

“We need to get people in their own backyards to understand, participate in and support this kind of culture change, without which our whole aspiration to deal with climate change issues will fall very far short” – Bishop of Derby, 18/6/14


The Government’s Infrastructure Bill was debated at its Second Reading in the House of Lords on 18th June 2014. During the debate, the Bishop of Derby, Rt Rev Alastair Redfern, focused on community energy provisions and, drawing on local examples, the role that churches can play as intermediary institutions. More details on the Bill, which also contains provisions on transport, planning and housing, can be found here.

The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, welcome the Infrastructure Bill and its joined-up thinking. A number of noble Lords have looked across the whole Bill and the large scale of it, but I shall look at only a specific area—that of community energy—and ask the Minister about how the Government can deliver on that.

The aim is to help communities play a key role in reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy security. The principle is that of partnership, to increase the reach and scale of community energy. The method is ownership or purchasing a stake in commercially developed projects. My question is: how realistic is that kind of strategy? “Community” is a slippery word and is largely in disarray at the moment. It is not as though there are communities out there organised and ready to make a financial investment. “Community” still remains the domain of the amateur, the interested person—hardly good material for commercial investment.

I suggest that we probably need an incremental approach if we are to get widespread support for this vital policy on energy and get communities organised to participate appropriately. I think the appeal immediately for financial arrangements is probably premature, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, just hinted.

I want to share with noble Lords a little case study to show how we need to build a base of popular support and participation around the energy issue so that people understand it, engage with it and can be drawn into making possibly financial and other investments. I want to tell a little story about a parish, in the diocese of Derby where I am privileged to work, called Melbourne.

Melbourne parish church is a grade 1 listed building of Norman foundation. One could not have a more precious building as an icon in the community. After a long and tortuous path, the parish has just got permission for a solar microgeneration system—that is, panels on the roof to most of us. Noble Lords can imagine the debate this has caused locally and the consciousness raising about “Why do that to a Norman building?”. The point is that, now the parish church is part of the Melbourne area transition scheme, people have got interested. They all started saying that this was not relevant or useful; they now see the point, they support the church taking a lead and they are willing to invest and support the church. They are beginning to engage in the energy agenda across the whole community.

Unless we do that careful, encouraging work of participation and consciousness raising, we will find it very hard to get the community investment that the Bill looks to.

That applies not just in a lovely market town such as Melbourne. I could take noble Lords to St Barnabas in inner Derby or the church of St John’s in Mickleover, which is in the suburbs, or the Peak District village of Old Brampton. In all those places, similar projects are being pursued. That is because a church and other iconic places do not just represent people’s hopes and fears in their hearts, souls and spirits, but represent an opportunity to engage creatively with the world in which we live and our care for the planet.

I invite the Minister to consider in her reply whether we need to think of some intermediate strategy before we come to this appeal for the community to invest—as I think communities should be encouraged to do—and whether we need to encourage churches and other iconic places to step into the debate and facilitate an engagement with the issues, with what problems might arise and with what the benefits might be.

We need to get people in their own backyards to understand, participate in and support this kind of culture change, without which our whole aspiration to deal with climate change issues will fall very far short.

I invite the Minister to comment on the need for an incremental strategy using iconic places and processes to effect a culture change that might give some energy to the strategy proposed in the Bill.