Incentives 'can help home-owners go green'

Cockermouth floods, November 2009 (Getty Images) About one-in-six homes are at risk from flooding, data shows

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Incentives, such as garden makeovers and fruit and veg vouchers, could help home-owners invest in energy efficiency measures, a pilot scheme has shown.

But the study found that more had to be done to convince people of the merits of flood protection devices, even if they lived in high flood risk areas.

The trial by the University of Salford set out to discover if non-cash incentives could change attitudes.

Studies have estimated that 70% of homes in 2050 have already been built.

Experts warn that unless existing homes are "retro-fitted" with energy saving devices, then the UK will not meet its target of cutting CO2 emissions by 80% in the middle of this century from 1990 levels.

Tempting technology

In the small-scale trial, 50 households in Timperley, near Manchester, were offered surveys to assess the houses' energy efficiency and vulnerability to flooding.

They were then offered a selection of non-cash rewards, including public transport season tickets and access to further education courses, if they decided to go ahead and invest in devices to reduce energy use or protect their homes from flooding.

Out of the 50 homes, 25 agreed to have a survey carried out. Five households then went on to have their homes improved, while a further seven were undecided at the time the team produced its interim report.

The trial was funded by the Environment Agency and Trafford Borough Council.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said that one-in-six homes in England and Wales were at risk from flooding.

Eco setting on dishwasher (Image: BBC) Making the switch: Incentives helped people become more energy efficient

"The Environment Agency has completed 225 new defences in the past four years, increasing protection to over 198,000 properties, but flooding cannot be entirely prevented," he told BBC News.

"We urge people to check whether their property is at risk by signing up to the Agency's free flood warning service to get free alerts.

"Individuals and businesses can also help make their properties more resistant to flooding using specialised flood products."

Erik Bichard, who led the research team, explained why incentives could have a role to play as a policy tool to improve the take-up of green technology.

"Psychologists have been trying to tell us about how people make decisions for some time, it just has not filtered through to this area," he said.

Professor Bichard said there were five main areas that affected people's decision-making processes:

  • Understanding the issue
  • Caring about the issue
  • Knowing what to do
  • Will doing something solve the problem?
  • What will people think?

He went on to explain how the offer of rewards could influence how people made up their minds.

Start Quote

I probably would never spend money on a garden makeover, I would have kept it for what you might call more practical things”

End Quote Barbara Tarbuck Homeowner

"Some of these areas are cognitive, intellectual, fact-based reasons, such as: Is there a problem? What can I do about it? Will it work?

"Incentives by-pass a lot of that thinking and take people straight to the question: 'If I do this then will I be better off than before'?"

One of the participants, Barbara Tarbuck, decided to pay for a new boiler to be installed in return for a garden makeover and fruit-and-veg vouchers.

Despite living in a relatively modern home, she explained that she agreed to a survey because she wanted to know what measures were already present in the house.

"I also wanted to see what I could do to reduce energy bills, so I was quite intrigued to see what ideas they came up with," she said.

Mrs Tarbuck also welcomed the idea of offering non-cash rewards: "It is alright to have a little grant to have a little bit to put towards the cost, but I am seeing benefits in two sorts of ways.

"I probably would never spend money on a garden makeover, I would have kept it for what you might call more practical things."

Tough choices

In the trial, all five households that decided to improve their properties all went for energy saving measures, with none choosing to reduce their homes' vulnerability to flooding.

Professor Bichard and his team asked people why they had decided against spending money on flood protection measures.

"About half of the people were put off by the price of flood protection," he said, adding that two door guards and some air brick covers would cost almost £2,000.

"Although we were proposing to reward back the full amount, the economic situation [meant that] people just did not have that sort of cash in the bank to make that sort of investment."

Mrs Tarbuck was among this group. She explained: "I went for the larger outlay of getting a boiler fitted. I am not saying I will not do it in the future, as I still have the report and what was recommended."

Professor Bichard said that the other half of participants were sceptical as to whether it was necessary to spend the money in the first place.

"They simply did not believe that flooding was ever going to affect their house, even though the Environment Agency's statistics show that they lived in a flood threatened area and they really needed to take responsibility to protect their house.

"That is interesting because even with the amount of incentives that we were offering, it just was not enough to overcome the fourth 'will it work' reservation."

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