Fuel poverty: Winter is here

Fuel poverty has serious implications for human health and can even be a matter of life or death for some vulnerable groups, but is enough being done to take the chill out of the air? 

THE season of winter mortality is upon us, when the inclement weather and the dark nights close in, but in a very real sense it is all-too-often the cost of keeping warm, rather than the damp chill itself, that invites the Reaper.

Last winter, there were over 50,000 excess winter deaths – the highest since 1975/76 – according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Mortality in 2017/18 was up significantly on 2016/17 in all English regions and Wales.

Excess winter deaths continued to be highest among females and people aged 85 or over, but the number of deaths among males aged zero to 64 doubled between 2016/17 and 2017/18. Over a third (34.7%) of all excess winter deaths were caused by respiratory diseases.

The figures provoked an angry response from the charity National Energy Action (NEA) when it launched its latest annual Warm & Safe Homes campaign at the end of November 2018. While not all these excess winter deaths can be attributed to fuel poverty, nevertheless the charity estimated that over 15,000 will relate directly to a cold home.

“[These] excess winter death figures should be a huge shock to the system,” said Adam Scorer, the NEA’s chief executive. “The cost in human suffering and lost lives is a tragedy. The cost to the NHS is significant and largely avoidable. Predictable, preventable and shameful; we seem to have accepted excess winter deaths to be as much a part of winter as darker evenings.”

According to the latest official figures, there are around 2.5 million people enduring fuel poverty in England (see below). Despite the perennial nature of the problem suggesting it never quite seems to go away, various efforts are underway to help the fuel poor.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), for example, is currently running two programmes across the Leeds City Region, both delivered through Better Homes Yorkshire.

The first, Tackling Fuel Poverty, has to date helped almost 1,200 households lower their energy bills and heat their homes more efficiently. In the process it has also created 215 jobs by using local contractors.

In partnership with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the combined authority has invested £6 million into the scheme to improve insulation and heating in homes in Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Craven, Harrogate, Kirklees, Leeds, Selby, Wakefield and York.

Over the next 42 years, it estimates that the scheme will save households almost £10 million in combined heating bills; almost £195 per household per year, on average. Meanwhile, carbon savings over the lifetime of the insulation is calculated to be around 31,500 tonnes.

“The programme aims to make fuel poverty a thing of the past, meaning homes will be well-insulated, while efficient energy generation, usage and smart networks will ensure everyone is actively in control of their energy consumption,” said a spokesperson.

Warm Homes, which runs through to March 2019, is the second programme. The £2.9 million scheme received £1.6 million of its funding through the £150 million National Grid Affordable Warmth Solutions Warm Homes Fund, with further contributions from partner councils, along with ECO-sourced funding from EON and Northern Gas Network.

The programme, which is managed by ENGIE, was set up to install gas-fired central heating systems and gas connections in eligible privately owned or privately rented homes through the city region, as well as eligible council housing properties in Leeds.

On average, fuel poor households that have benefitted from Warm Homes have saved around £400 a year, the council says. Beneficiaries are mainly low-income households with cold-related illnesses, heart or respiratory conditions who were previously unable to heat their homes to the temperature they needed to stay warm and healthy.

“Leeds City Region has an above national average rate of fuel poverty with more than 156,000 homes (11%) classed as fuel poor,” said Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford Council, and the chair of the WYCA.

“We know that some residents in our region are relying on heating systems that are expensive to run or inadequate for their needs. It’s great to see the quality of life of many residents being improved through the Warm Homes programme since the combined authority approved phase one of the funding last year. It’s right that we ensure those living in rented accommodation can now also benefit.”

Sometimes, it is a ‘simple’ matter of changing tariffs, as housing provider Acis has found. The organisation maintains a dedicated energy management officer, tasked with ensuring tenants have the best deal from their energy provider, among other things.

“Many of our customers have a low income and selecting the right tariff and payment method can make a significant difference to budgets,” said Anna Cooper, Acis’ energy management officer. “Our dedicated service looks at everything energy related – bills, benefit entitlements, insulation, renewable sources, and even energy saving – so our people can heat their homes affordably, and we can do our bit for the environment.

“Last year, we supported more than 100 customers through this service. Switching energy providers saved them almost £4,000 a year, while we also helped to clear almost £2,000 of customer debt, and helped insulate 19 lofts and 17 cavity walls, saving customers another £4,000 a year. We also gained £250,000 income from renewable energy sources, which then helped to fund other investments in our properties.”

Such efforts are, of course, laudable, but given the extent of fuel poverty, there’s a limit to what any one organisation or agency can do. Reform is needed at the national policy level.

Back in the summer last year, IPPR North warned that without serious reform of the Government’s policies, fuel poor households are likely to die of old age waiting for a solution. The thinktank wasn’t entirely joking, either.

The Government’s main vehicle for tackling fuel poverty is the Energy Company Obligation (ECO). In its 2015 Fuel Poverty Strategy, it set a target of ensuring fuel poor homes are upgraded to an energy efficiency certificate (EPC) rating of C by 2030. The snag, according to IPPR North’s report, is that at the current rate of delivering energy efficiency measures, the Government won’t be hitting its target until 2091 at the earliest.

“The Energy Company Obligation is not delivering for the fuel poor households it is designed to help. At its current rate of delivery, hundreds of thousands of fuel poor households will be left out in the cold until the end of the century,” said Luke Murphy, the IPPR’s associate director for energy, climate, housing and infrastructure.

“If the Government is to meet its 2030 target then its approach to improving energy efficiency for those households in fuel poverty needs fundamental reform. Our report calls for a new scheme to be focused solely on fuel poor households and delivered by local authorities in a new area-based approach. Crucially, this new scheme must be funded through general taxation, rather than as a levy on bills, which is hugely regressive and hits those in fuel poverty the hardest.”

Unsurprisingly, the organisation has called for reform of the ECO programme, and the creation of a more rigorous approach to targeting the fuel poor by “forcing” energy suppliers to share energy consumption data and billing information with local authorities, so that it can be matched with the data they hold on energy efficiency of housing stock, and benefits data.

“While we welcome government plans to focus 100% of funds on fuel poor, low income and vulnerable households – the affordable warmth group – everyone knows that there will still be problems with reaching fuel poor consumers within this group,” said research fellow, Joshua Emden. “Until we fundamentally re-design ECO and properly fund local authorities to deliver it, it will always look like the ghost of an old energy policy rather than the truly social policy it must become.”

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Fuel for thought

  • In 2016, the average fuel poverty gap in England was estimated at £326. This was a decrease of 4.4% in real terms from 2015 and continues a downward trend since 2012
  • The aggregate fuel poverty gap for England also continued to decrease in 2016, falling 1.8% in real terms to £832 million
  • The proportion of households in England in fuel poverty was estimated to have increased by 0.1% from 2015 to 11.1% in 2016, coming to approximately 2.55 million households
  • In 2016, “further progress” was made towards the interim 2020 fuel poverty target, with 91.3% of all fuel poor households living in a property with a fuel poverty energy efficiency rating of Band E or above
  • Households with insulated cavity walls are least likely to be in fuel poverty: 7.6% of households with an average gap of £220. By contrast, households with uninsulated solid walls account for 16.8% and an average fuel poverty gap of £433
  • Older properties tend to have a higher proportion of households in fuel poverty compared to new dwellings. Households in homes built between 1900 and 1918 were most likely to be fuel poor (18.6%) with an average gap of £379. Just 4.2% of fuel poor households live in properties built after 1990 and have an average fuel poverty gap of £226
  • Fuel poverty is more prevalent in the private rented sector (19.4%). Among home owners by contrast, 7.7% are fuel poor. Private renters also tend to be deeper in fuel poverty, with an average gap of £383 compared to just over £200 for those in council and housing association homes
  • People living in multi-person adult households are the deepest in fuel poverty with an average gap of £413 compared to a single person under 60 (£208). The highest prevalence of fuel poverty is seen among lone parents with one or more dependent children (26.4%)

(Source: Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics, 2018, BEIS, June 2018)


This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #3 Spring 2019

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