Handing the first energy rating certificate to Margaret Thatcher.

Original Article
April 17th, 2013


It was the late 1980’s, a time of power shoulder pads, big hair and a certain Prime Minister and the NHER scheme was in its infancy.

At the time I was MD of Optima Energy.  We had pioneered the use of the Energy Auditor software created by Prof Jake Chapman of a young company called National Energy Services (NES). The software was based on an early version of BREDEM 12 Jake had created with Brian Anderson and Les Shorrock of the BRE.  It had been road tested by the Open University as the basis of a self assessment questionnaire householders could use (not unlike the modern day NES DIYSAP system that some of the utility companies use to provide energy advice for their customers).   That Energy Auditor software went on to become the basis of the present day NHER rating and fuelled the launch of the NHER scheme.

Optima Energy were using Energy Auditor as the basis of the first ever Energy Auditing service in the UK; indeed it is possible we were the first Energy Auditing service in the world, certainly using a computer model of a dwelling.   (We have never been challenged about this assertion, but if anyone knows any differently, then we would be interested to hear from them).

At the time, Optima had four people trained to carry out energy audits and we’d been experimenting in the 80’s with selling the service to private householders.  In hindsight it will be no surprise that we made no money from this since few homeowners were interested in paying for these audits.  History might have taken a different turn had it not been for the now defunct Greater London Council (GLC) financing much of this as an employment creation initiative!

One of our experiments involved teaming up with an installation company to offer free audits,  paid for by commission on sales; but it has to be said this never really took off, largely because the installers were a funky cooperative with little business sense.  (I wonder what they would make of The Green Deal?).  So instead, Optima Energy concentrated on selling energy auditing, condensation services and pressure tests of tower blocks to local authorities in London, and, it has to be said, made a good business out of it.

And so it came to pass that NES was in the process of launching the NHER scheme based on the latest incarnation of BREDEM, and wanted to generate some high profile publicity. Why not, they thought, conduct an assessment of a home, produce the energy rating certificate and create a great photo-opportunity by handing it to someone famous?

Who should that someone famous be?  Well, one thing that may not be remembered about Margaret Thatcher is that in the late 1980’s she helped put climate change (or global warming as it was then known), acid rain and pollution on to the mainstream political map.

In fact she made several significant environment themed speeches.  The first was to The Royal Society in September 1988 when she spoke about holes in the ozone layer, global warming and acid rain.  Many claim this contributed to galvanising the emerging green debate in Britain and helped swell the membership of groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The ecological and scientific arguments she used were not new, but their impact was profound. Read her whole speech here.

Her second speech on this theme was to the UN general assembly, in November 1989.  She understood the environment’s political importance in a globalising world and was the first major politician to hold out the prospect of international legislation. Read this speech here.

She also opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research in 1990.  But by the time of the Rio Earth Summit she had been succeeded by John Major and it was he who formally signed Britain up to the forest, climate and other agreements from that summit.

And so, given this very public commitment to the environment, Mrs Thatcher came to be invited by NES to support them in their launch of the NHER.

Next, NES needed someone familiar with their software to conduct the energy rating survey.  Since Optima Energy had been working closely with NES throughout this period, I was nominated, agreed, and thus personally had the honour of conducting the first ever NHER rating survey and handing the certificate to our then Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

The day before the Big Day I surveyed the property: a split level ground floor flat with a basement at the back of a converted house in Islington.   I entered the data into my ‘portable’ computer, a cutting edge Apricot computer I had bought because I thought it would look great to a householder on a kitchen table.  (“Portable” back then meant it came in only two black bags, one for each shoulder; one for the Base unit (CPU) and one for the full size monitor – which wasn’t a flat screen!  I also had a small printer.)  All this I carried in a van as it would have been difficult on the tube.  It may have been bulky but it worked a treat.

The software was essentially what we now call full SAP, but it was in some ways better, being based upon actual rather than standard occupancy, albeit with far less detail than a Green Deal Occupancy Assessment.     The recommendations coming out of the software were more flexible than RDSAP and not far off what a green deal assessor / provider would be generating now. And that was over 30 years ago.

Anyway, once I had carried out the assessment, a number of us met up at the flat for the PR opportunity.  The assembled group included Jake Chapman, Deborah Brownhill, then Manager of the NHER scheme  and, if my memory serves me correctly, Mary Archer, wife of Geoffrey Archer and Chair of the National Energy Foundation. There were others, but I now forget who they all were.  I am sure they remember and if you were there, and are reading this, then apologies.

Anyway, I waited, nervously!  Then whoosh – in swept Margaret, with her entourage.  The whole thing passed very quickly. We were all lined up, she shook our hands one by one and I gave her the energy certificate.

Then, ever PR savvy, she sat near the computer, just as a householder might have done, and Jake Chapman explained what was on the screen.  Next she rushed down into the garden and, with the cameraman leaning out of the living room window, spent 5 minutes looking up at the window while he snapped away (onto celluloid film!).

Then it was all over and in a flash they were gone.  Looking back, I have to say that  I felt privileged to meet the Prime Minister of the day, particularly one who had put ‘green’ onto the political agenda,  and am proud to have played a part in the creation of the NHER scheme that was later to morph into the present UK EPC industry.  It is true that I did enjoy the buzz and excitement of it all and most of all I have to say I was fascinated to see what goes on in the day of a Prime Minister in the world of photo opportunities.

One thing I can say: I never envisaged for a moment that a quarter of a century later I would be writing a blog about that event in the circumstance of Mrs Thatcher’s death – not least because Blogging hadn’t been invented!

(Post Script:- I had another ‘encounter’ of sorts with the then Mrs Thatcher when we both featured in a BBC Documentary on Climate Change.  She was shown both making speeches about climate change, which I believe she was genuinely passionate about, and being interviewed.  The same documentary included footage of me doing an energy audit of a house in Lewes, Sussex, duri
ng which I was interviewed also.  I attended many exhibitions over the subsequent years where Friends of The Earth had that video running on a continuous loop. It is hard to forget that!)