The energy crisis of the early 1970s brought more than fuel shortages and corresponding price increases; it brought a cruel reminder that the cost of energy has consequences outside the world of industry, commerce and economics. Rising fuel prices resurrected and exacerbated a social problem which had lain
dormant in an era of comparatively cheap fuel – the problem of fuel poverty.
Fuel poverty, the inability of a household to afford sufficient warmth for health and comfort, was now identified as an area of great social concern affecting millions of families and individuals in the United Kingdom. The first community energy project was set up by a group of students at Durham University including several who were to go on to become founder members of NEA. The students established a group of volunteers who installed loft insulation in the homes of elderly local people, an experience that led them to realise that there was a huge problem of people living in cold and unhealthy homes.
Subsequently, working with Newcastle City Council, this project was replicated on a wider scale by putting together different funding streams to develop community insulation projects.
On 18th May 1981 Neighbourhood Energy Action was formally launched as a development programme of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) – funded initially by the Calouste Gulbenkian Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust, Pilkingtons, the Manpower Services Commission and the Department of Energy – to spread the community insulation project network nationwide.
None of the initial funding or sponsoring bodies could have anticipated that the next 30 years would see NEA advance from these modest beginnings to its present status.
Following NEA’s establishment, the Department of Energy instigated the first programme of grants to purchase vans and equipment for community insulation projects and by 1982 a total of 28 such projects were in operation. The projects provided a range of free services for low-income households including draughtproofing of windows and doors, hot water tank jackets, loft insulation and energy advice. The Community Programme was used by the vast majority of projects as the funding source for the labour element of this work. Projects were managed by a wide range of organisations including local authorities, training and job creation agencies and community groups.
NEA’s success in establishing community energy projects was largely attributable to the creation of an effective training curriculum for domestic energy efficiency. With the participation and assistance of such bodies as the City and Guilds of London Institute, the Building Research Establishment, the Open University and the British Standards Institute, NEA devised a system of accredited qualifications and standards.
Project managers were reliant on the skills of NEA’s Development Section, advising on, and resolving, all aspects of financial, personnel, publicity and technical issues and interacting with local authorities, the Training Agency, the Department of Social Security and other agencies.
Scottish Neighbourhood Energy Action (SNEA) was established by NEA in 1983. SNEA subsequently became the independent charity, Energy Action Scotland, in 1986 and now has a team of nine staff based in Glasgow.
By 1985 NEA had become an independent national charity governed by a Council of Management chaired by Lord Ezra, who continued his commitment to the charity by becoming its first President and then Patron, retiring after 16 years of association with NEA in 2000.