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Fuel poverty

June 2016

With millions of people struggling to heat their homes, we are facing an energy fuel crisis. One of the main reasons is that the UK’s homes are some of the least energy efficient in Europe – leaking heat from their doors, walls and windows. As a result energy bills are high and fuel poverty is getting worse (Energy Bill Revolution).

The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act (2000) see a person living in fuel poverty as somebody who is a member of a household living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost.

Fuel poverty is often linked to other issues and can stem from a number of causes. For example, people who have trouble paying bills often have to use pre-payment meters, which means that they often cannot access the best deals or competitive rates and pay more for their fuel as a result.

A recent review forecast that in 2016, 8.5 million people within 2.9 million households across the UK will be in fuel poverty.

Each year we see a rise in the number of ‘excess winter deaths’. Excess winter deaths is defined as the difference between the number of deaths which occurred in winter (December to March) and the average number of deaths during the preceding four months (August to November) and the subsequent four months (April to July). In 2012 there were an estimated 31,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales, a 29% increase on the previous year. More women than men accounted for those excess winter deaths, and most were aged 75 and over. The problem is made worse if there is also a flu epidemic.

What are the effects of fuel poverty?

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Fuel poverty is not just about paying the bills and it is not just about temperature. Some wealthy countries have high rates of fuel poverty and some cold countries have lower rates than would be expected. Fuel poverty is about needing to use too much income on energy costs, which leads to making difficult choices about spending on other essentials. This can lead to a range of health problems, stress and social isolation.

The key problems are:

  • excess winter deaths are highest among those who live in the coldest homes
  • UK housing stock is among the most energy inefficient in Europe
  • older people tend to spend more time at home, and are more at risk
  • incomes have not kept pace with rising energy prices.

Fuel poverty also makes a significant negative difference to the health and wellbeing of children. Health sector research shows how cold homes are associated with:

  • reduced weight gain in infants
  • asthma in young children
  • impeded ability to learn in older children
  • social embarrassment (children don’t bring friends to a cold home)
  • various and often multiple mental health problems in adolescents
  • long-term health inequalities.

What can you do to tackle fuel poverty?

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Helping people to conserve energy saves money, and can reduce illness and even save lives. Here are some things that you can do to tackle fuel poverty in your area.

You can:

  • start your own local energy efficiency project (for example through draught proofing a community space, which is often the quickest way to save energy and money)
  • get people in touch with the causes and solutions of fuel poverty (there are links to useful websites below)
  • work with relevant agencies to ensure that people stay warm and healthy.

Wider solutions to fuel poverty will depend on your area and partners who might be working in the area such as housing associations and local councils.

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency can be a great place to start. It is straightforward to start an energy efficiency project; everyone can get involved and the money you save from reducing energy consumption can be immediate. Your project could be for a single home, a street, a neighbourhood, or community buildings.

You can:

  • undertake energy audits, to find out where savings can be made
  • draught-proof and improve cavity wall insulation
  • heat premises and homes in zones to save energy or change heating systems.

Low cost measures such as draught proofing can result in an average reduction of 15% in energy consumption. The money saved can make up the cost spent on the work quite quickly making places more comfortable and healthier environments to be in.

Carrying out structural works and replacing inefficient equipment is more costly, but can lead to a reduction of 60% in energy consumption. Groups that start with low cost measures often move onto larger projects. These can generate income through making buildings warmer. Halls that are too cold for use in winter months by projects with older people or children (or very expensive to heat) become much more attractive and bookings increase. Many other community buildings have reported reduction in energy use and costs.

More information

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Citizens Advice: provide help locally on fuel poverty, debt advice and ongoing advocacy. They produce a wide variety of downloadable resources to support Big Energy Saving Week including a campaign guide, leaflets, and social media messages. 

National Energy Action (NEA): aims to eradicate fuel poverty and campaigns for greater investment in energy efficiency to help those who are poor and vulnerable. They have many case studies on their website. 

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF): works for social change in the UK by researching the root causes of social problems and developing solutions. The JRF website has clear informative publications. For example, their report on ‘Climate change and social justice: an evidence review’, which can be found here

Energy Bill Revolution: a movement of people committed to ensuring warm homes and lower bills for all. They are an alliance of children's and older people's charities, health and disability groups, environment groups, consumer groups, trade unions, businesses, politicians and public figures. 

The Government’s own annual fuel poverty review

Big Local support

If you would like to find out what you can do in your Big Local area to tackle fuel poverty, please get in touch with us.

We are also interested in hearing from you if you wish to be connected with other areas on this issue to share knowledge and learning. 

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