Fuel Poverty: Why this is the Government’s problem
The UK is in the midst of a fuel-poverty crisis and things are about to get significantly worse. Around 6.5 million – that’s 27 per cent – of households are currently estimated to be unable to heat their homes to the level needed for comfort and wellbeing. Recent changes to existing schemes to help those struggling to heat their homes affordably mean that those most in need are likely to miss out.
Fuel poverty is not a new problem but the rising costs of energy and several harsh winters have helped raise this issue in the national consciousness. When even those who are relatively well-off are starting to think carefully about the energy they use, we know that the impact on those who have little cash to spare in the first place must be significant.
Fuel poverty is caused by three main factors; poor quality, energy inefficient housing that is difficult and expensive to heat; low incomes; and rising energy prices. The impact on health and wellbeing is huge, with around 25,000 extra people dying each winter from cold-related illness compared to the rest of the year. The fact that our Scandinavian neighbours experience much harsher winters than we do and have nowhere near the same number of excess winter deaths implies that this is not an inevitable consequence of cold weather, and yet every year the same phenomenon occurs.
Unsurprisingly, those most at risk from fuel poverty and cold-related illness are our most vulnerable members of society. Elderly people account for 50 per cent of those classed as being in fuel-poverty, with other susceptible groups including families with young children, and those who are chronically sick or disabled.
Charity National Energy Action has long held that the only sustainable way to tackle fuel poverty is to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, ‘proofing’ homes so that the effects of future energy price rises are largely mitigated. While this aligns to some extent with the agenda of many green organisations, we must never forget that fuel poverty is a social issue. If we listen to the voices of some of the people NEA has had contact with over the years, we start to get a picture of the impact that living in fuel poverty can have.
‘“…I’m frightened; I’m just frightened of running out of money and not being able to put the heating on. And I would get depressed, and you know, I’m just of that disposition that I would get depressed if I’m very cold.” (Joan)*
Talking about heating: “I must admit, I have mine on 24/7. My husband has emphysema and needs to be in a constant temperature… our fuel bills are astronomical. Plus the fact they’ve now cut the £250 down to £200… I worry. I really do worry. You know, if he goes out for the paper I go and turn it down, and as soon as he comes back, I turn it back up again… I must admit, I think over the last three years we must have spent well over a quarter of our savings on fuel.. Yes. Well over. It had to be, so it doesn’t matter. Well, I’m saying it doesn’t matter; it does matter, but it’s annoying when you think, ‘Oh, I would like to go away for a few days’ but you can’t afford it.” (Maureen)
‘It’s a humanitarian thing, isn’t it? You know, that people should be able to enjoy life in their later years and not have to fret on about do I buy better quality food, or do I save it for the heating?’ (David)
For over 30 years NEA has campaigned to ensure that voices such as Joan and David’s are heard by the Government and the energy industry, and that their needs are addressed. We were instrumental in helping to secure the passage of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, supported by the UK Fuel Poverty Strategy 2001, which requires the Government to seek to adopt an end to fuel poverty for all households by 2016 (2018 in Wales). This was followed by Warm Front, a Treasury-funded scheme providing heating and insulation measures for low income households, along with other supplier-led energy efficiency schemes.
Fast forward to early 2013, and the Warm Front scheme and other supplier-led schemes have just closed to new applicants to make way for the Government’s flagship Green Deal programme. The programme will provide loans for energy efficiency programmes that will be repaid through charges on electricity bills; those households that can’t benefit from this, including certain low-income households, will be eligible for additional support through the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), which will be funded by levies on all customer energy bills.
Even if you ignore the irony of funding programmes to tackle fuel-poverty through policies, which will effectively increase energy bills, what cannot be ignored is the fact that the amount of funding allocated to this programme is less than half that available in 2010-11. Recent analysis by NEA suggests, for example that even at the most optimistic estimates this would leave around 45 per cent of fuel-poor households that could benefit from Cavity Wall Insulation – the single most beneficial and cost-effective energy efficiency measure – unable to do so because of inadequate funding.
Without investing public money in warmth, we believe the UK will see increased health costs at a local and national level, increased levels of fuel debt, reduced numbers of contractors employed within the energy efficiency industry, and inevitably, increased levels of fuel poverty.
From this year onwards the treasury will accrue huge revenues from hard-pressed domestic energy consumers, and so during our national Warm Homes Campaign we are supporting the Energy Bill Revolution and calling for revenues from taxes to be used to fund a national energy efficiency programme that could help take nine out or 10 households out of fuel poverty. In the meantime we want to see the Warm Front scheme reinstated as a matter of urgency.
*All names have been changed
NEA is the national fuel poverty charity, which aims to eradicate fuel poverty and campaigns for greater investment in energy efficiency to help those who are poor and vulnerable. Together with Energy Action Scotland we are running the Warm Homes Campaign to raise awareness of the problem of fuel poverty and the solutions available to those who are struggling to heat their homes.
For further information on the campaign visit www.nea.org.uk
For advice on energy efficiency and to see if you are eligible for grants to improve the heating and insulation of your home, call the Home Heat Helpline on 0800 33 66 99.Tagged in: Energy, fuel poverty
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