The perennial problem of fuel poverty

Zero carbon beats the frost

While ‘Jack Frost’ was making himself an unwelcome guest in the homes of the fuel poor in the winter of 2009, the Government announced an ambitious strategy intended to evict him for good, reports Mark Cantrell 

First published in Northern Housing

THE weather’s certainly been more than a tad chilly of late; when the country shivered in the grip of the coldest winter for a decade, the snow and ice proved a dramatic and timely reminder of the urgency of tackling fuel poverty.

There were around 3.5 million households languishing in fuel poverty as of 2006, according to the latest annual progress report of the UK Fuel Poverty Strategy published last year. This figure represented a rise of one million households from 2005. The culprit blamed for the rise was an increase in fuel prices. Since then, rising fuel costs have continued to squeeze the fuel poor, and the fallout of recession has added to the sorry saga.

Fuel poverty, defined as where households are spending 10 per cent or more of their income on keeping warm, has long been a problem. Low income is one factor, but so too are old, damp homes with inadequate heating and insulation. More recently, rising fuel prices have also impacted on household finances, placing rising numbers of people in the unenviable position of choosing ‘eating or heating’.

February witnessed the heaviest snowfall for 18 years, according to the Met Office. Without doubt, that was great for snowball-happy kids, but it wasn’t so great for the elderly or otherwise vulnerable nor for those struggling to stay warm indoors let alone outdoors. So it was an appropriate time for the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) to announce the ‘Great British Refurb’.

“We need to move from incremental steps forward on household energy efficiency to a comprehensive national plan,” said energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband. “We know the scale of the challenge: wasted energy is costing families on average £300 a year, and more than a quarter of all our emissions are from our homes. We cannot afford not to act. Every home must be able to access the help and technology it needs. Most importantly, I want to ensure that help to meet costs is available to people house by house, street by street, and that lower-income families don’t miss out.”

The Heat and Energy Saving Strategy was opened to consultation in early February and is certainly ambitious in its aspirations. Existing energy efficiency schemes are to be improved under this strategy, but longer-term things became rather more grandiose. By 2050, the Government intends to have reduced the national carbon emissions by 80 per cent. Homes will play a major part, as Miliband said, home by home and street by street, they will be upgraded and improved to reduce their carbon emissions to near zero.

By 2015, the draft plan says that cavity wall and loft insulation will be provided for all suitable properties. There will be ‘whole house makeovers’, with a target of 400,000 homes a year to have undergone this process by 2015. By 2020, the plan is for seven million homes to have benefited from the makeovers, and by 2030 it is hoped that the strategy will be “well on the way” to all homes in the country having access to such improvements.

“We don’t only need more housing, we need better quality housing as well,” said housing minister Margaret Beckett. “These proposals can ensure that a more sustainable lifestyle is available to everyone, not just a luxury for those with the money to invest in the latest green gadgets.

“Social housing must be at the forefront of these changes. People living in social housing stand to gain the most from the proposals, as they are among the most likely to be living in fuel poverty. Some of the greenest homes in the country have been built by housing associations, and I believe that through this programme we can go even further.”

Obviously, such measures to make every home in Britain more energy efficient and therefore easier to heat will make a major impact on fuel poverty. Of course, for those who are still shivering in fuel poverty, the target dates to achieve the various stages of the ‘Great British Refurb’ are something of a chilly long-haul.

“Last winter, during average temperatures, the cold was blamed for more than 25,000 extra deaths in England and Wales, the vast majority among the over 75s. Unless we act quickly, more people will die unnecessarily because of the cold,” said Sir Jeremy Beecham, vice chair of the Local Government Association (LGA).

“The long-term plans to help people have warmer homes and cut their energy bills are a major step forward [but] the freezing conditions have taught us that there also needs to be some urgent short-term measures to cut bills and keep people’s homes warmer. A comprehensive home insulation programme is the best long-term solution to tackling fuel poverty, cutting domestic carbon emissions, creating jobs and saving people money.”

The LGA is calling on energy suppliers to pay a £500 million annual charge to help fund such a programme and lift half a million people out of fuel poverty. Extra investment in council-led home insulation schemes, the organisation added, would also save 10 million households £280 a year on their energy bills and create up to 20,000 new ‘green’ jobs.

There’s already the Warm Front Scheme, the Government might counter, but as the National Audit Office (NAO) said in its February report on the scheme, though it has helped considerable numbers of households, many more are yet to be reached.

“The Warm Front Scheme has helped to alleviate fuel poverty in a large number of households, but despite changes intended to improve the targeting of the scheme, over half of vulnerable families in fuel poverty still do not qualify, while many households unlikely to be fuel poor are able to claim a grant,” said Tim Burr, head of the NAO. “The DECC needs to improve the way it assesses eligibility for the scheme, so that the most vulnerable households are the first to receive the assistance they need.”

Broadly speaking, the Government’s grand energy efficiency programme has been welcomed, but given the timescale and the need for more immediate measures in the interim; it’s understandable that the reception has been rather lukewarm rather than glowing. Consultations do not make a summer, but it may be a harbinger of spring, as Help the Aged’s special advisor Mervyn Kohler put it.

“Spring has not yet arrived but this package of policy holds out the prospect of some warmth,” Kohler added. “The targets set by the Government on fuel poverty are still in jeopardy and even if there were significant falls in energy prices, they would be unlikely to come to the rescue. Far from the full answer, Help the Aged will support these steps if they lead us forward to a dynamic, sustained and properly funded programme which simultaneously addresses the challenges of fuel poverty and climate change.”

Age Concern’s director general, Gordon Lishman said: “This is a welcome sign that ministers are at last accelerating efforts to tackle fuel poverty. These measures must be tackled at the poorest households living in the least energy efficient homes. But it is not yet clear how these plans will be paid for. It would be counter-productive for people who are already fuel poor to get higher bills to cover the cost of this initiative.

“The Government must do more to support today’s pensioners who are struggling to heat their homes. It is essential that social tariffs are reformed and that pricing penalties leaving cash, cheque and pre-payment customers paying more for their energy are removed.”

So much remains to be done. For many households, Jack Frost, it seems, will remain an unwelcome winter visitor for a while yet, but at least the eviction proceedings are underway.

First published in Northern Housing magazine, circa April/May 2009, and subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 3 June 2009

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