A local solution to energy bills, a new word, a farewell to floral designs and a phantom at the opera


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The Independent Online

Michael Fallon, the Energy Minister, has advice for customers angry at SSE's whopping 8.2 per cent hike in fuel bills: switch to another firm. In one of the more nakedly cynical moves by one of the Big Six, the nation's second-largest energy company is putting up bills by an average of £111 a year three weeks after Ed Miliband pledged to freeze prices if elected.

Fallon's advice to shop around for a cheaper tariff is all well and good, but at some stage the energy supplier you switch to will also push up bills. If you are a family whose household budget is already cut to the bone, it is easy to feel like all the power – in every way – is out of your hands.

There is no quick, easy solution – and switching is always better than sticking with an extortionate supplier. But there is a way to feel empowered again – through community energy. In Brixton, local residents invested in solar panels, fitted to the roof of a social housing development, last year. The scheme is so popular that Brixton Energy Solar is on its third project, which is under way this autumn.

Some 69 people have invested in Brixton Energy Solar 3 to fit solar panels to the roof of a council block. The energy produced will supply local homes, and investors get an annual return on any profits. For the first time, many residents who previously felt disenfranchised by the system have taken back some power – literally. Hundreds of schemes like this – which are also popular in Germany – are being created across the country. This is the democratisation of energy.

Of course, renewable energy is subsidised by the Government through "green taxes", which David Cameron has put under review, despite a warning by Vince Cable on Friday that it would be "foolish and short-sighted" to scrap them. People might feel aggrieved that their taxes are going towards subsidising green power. But boosting renewable energy is essential to generating interest and incentives, and in turn a flourishing sector. Without this, Britain will remain hooked on carbon.

The Big Six blame green taxes – not themselves – for pushing up bills. But the last word should go to Inca Williams, a young engineering student from Brixton who did work experience on installing the panels in her neighbourhood for Brixton Energy Solar. She says: "I was motivated to get involved in the project because it is funded by local residents rather than a company I had never heard of. I think we need to be less reliant on expensive energy providers, who have increased their prices for electricity and gas recently."

Sacked and then ransacked

Last week I wrote about Richard Benyon, the Conservative MP and rural affairs minister with a vast 20,000-acre estate, being responsible for overseeing the erosion of protection of village greens and open spaces. The next day he was sacked as minister and, hours later, vandals caused £1m of damage to planes and vehicles on his land and caused his horses to flee up the A4. While I remain deeply concerned about what the Government is doing to our common land, no one deserves such a wrecking spree to be carried out at their home – whether it's a tiny flat or a huge estate.

Women's choice

I normally recoil at new or hybrid words, but I quite like one coined by Helen Calcraft, the co-founder of the advertising agency Lucky Generals. She says high-flying women must combat "succsexism" – the view that women have to choose between being feminine and popular on one side, or successful on the other. She says women are to blame for succsexism as much as men. One thing is certainly sure: successful women are often invited to bitch about their rivals in a way that men aren't. So, on Wednesday, when Janet Yellen was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, was asked by a journalist how she felt about no longer being the most powerful woman in economics. Lagarde said she was "overjoyed". If she and Yellen were men, would Lagarde have been asked how she felt about no longer being the most powerful man in economics? I doubt it.

Change of a dress

Walking around the stalls at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, I came across a husband and wife who decided to set up their own children's clothes-making business after they both lost their jobs. The clothes for boys and girls, by Betsy Boo Creations, are in beautiful original fabrics and designs featuring birds and animals – such a change from the floral tweeness of, dare I say, Cath Kidston. When Kidston herself said last week that her vintage floral designs had a "shelf life", I could not agree more. As the mother of a three-year-old girl, I am desperate for something different to dress her in.

All the world's a farce

At the opera last Monday evening, I spotted Theresa May in the audience for The Marriage of Figaro just hours after the Government reshuffle in which Norman Baker, the Lib Dem who has doubts about the death of David Kelly, was appointed as one of her ministers. The Home Secretary was said to be "spitting tacks" over the decision, taken by Nick Clegg, but she looked serene when I spotted her watching Mozart's comedy at Covent Garden. In fact, she seemed to rather enjoy the farce about mistaken identities and best-laid plans going awry … a bit like The Marriage of Figaro.