Download a PDF of the report here Fuel Poverty
Those living in fuel poverty are defined as those would have to spend at least 10% of their household income to heat their home adequately, to provide hot water and lighting, and power for cooking, and household appliances. Although the mechanism for measuring varies over time, between 10% and 12% of the UK population is said to be in fuel poverty.
The impact of fuel poverty is felt across many areas of life.
- An estimated 30% of excess winter deaths are as a result of cold homes. Between 1 Jan and 31 March 2018, including a period of very cold weather, there were an additional 15,000 deaths in the UK.
- Cold housing can exacerbate conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism, chronic lung disease and asthma. It can weaken the body’s immune system and result in an increase in incidence of colds and flu.
- Children in households facing fuel poverty have poorer educational outcomes: they are more likely to miss school through ill health, might struggle to find a quiet, warm space to study at home, and may be socially excluded through reluctance to invite friends home.
- There is growing evidence of the detrimental effect anxiety relating to fuel poverty can have on mental health and wellbeing, especially for young people.
Fuel poverty is a particular problem in rural areas, for a variety of reasons:
- In the countryside there is a high proportion of older, detached houses (often larger properties lived in by retired people), often of solid wall and floor construction, which are harder to insulate, and can also be subject to listing, or are in conservation areas, which can restrict alterations. Twenty per cent of rural households are EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) rated F or G (the lowest levels), compared with 3% of urban ones.
- Rural homes are more likely to be off the mains gas grid, so relying on oil, electricity or bottled gas for heat. The rural premium on living costs is about 10-20%, and energy is the largest element: No mains gas means householders cannot benefit from energy suppliers’ dual fuel discounts. The government’s winter fuel payment is made in December, to coincide with the first winter fuel bill, but off-grid households filling an oil tank will have likely had this expenditure much earlier in the year.
- There are relatively high levels of private rented accommodation, as opposed to local authority or housing association property. Those in private rented accommodation are at the greatest risk of severe fuel poverty – they have lower average income than owner-occupiers, and their homes tend to be less energy efficient than those of social housing tenants. Private tenants can be reluctant to raise issues with poor insulation or heating for fear of eviction or rent rises.
- The dispersed nature of these fuel-poor households means the problem is essentially hidden, so local authorities don’t identify it as a problem.
- The severity of fuel poverty in rural areas is twice that in urban, or even semi-rural areas (the proportion of households in fuel poverty is about even, but the fuel poverty gap – the amount of money you’d need to be lifted out of fuel poverty – is much higher).
This is an area where rural inequality is significant:
- Government carbon-reduction or warm homes schemes are more difficult and more expensive to implement in rural areas, and since the government’s definition of ‘rural’ in many contexts includes settlements of up to 10,000 people, it is possible for organisations to meet their targets without leaving market towns. Off-grid householders are often excluded altogether from supposedly ‘universal’ schemes.
- By law, privately rented properties must have a minimum EPC rating, but this requires landlords to spend large sums retrofitting older, off-grid properties from scratch, without access to government support. This can lead to properties coming off the rental market, further reducing the supply of affordable homes in the countryside.
Fuel poverty is a significant problem in several parts of Devon, especially in very rural areas of North and West Devon, and Torridge, as shown on the map below. The numbers of households in fuel poverty in the county as a whole are equivalent to national figures (11.1%), but this rises to 12.4% in Torridge, and is likely to be even higher in specific neighbourhoods, though the data becomes unreliable at a very local level. Levels of fuel poverty have risen across the South West in recent years.
There is cause for concern not only in the extent of fuel poverty in the region, but in the depth of the problem. Outside the South East, the South West region has the highest average fuel poverty gap (how much money required to reach the threshold for fuel poverty) in the country, at £391 (source: NEA UK fuel poverty monitor.)
Fuel poverty in Devon, 2016
With a growing elderly population, a high proportion of rural households, a generally low-wage economy, and a lack of good quality, affordable housing, it is likely that fuel poverty will remain an issue in Devon for some time.
Community action against fuel poverty
While there is clearly a role for government in addressing this issue, commentators have recognised the need for locally generated solutions to the problems of fuel poverty, building on relationships of trust with vulnerable people in fuel poverty, and bringing local knowledge to bear.
In many cases, community fuel poverty work is associated with general poverty alleviation initiatives: advice on ways to tackle fuel poverty can be part of wider advice and support services. However, there are some aspects of fuel poverty which require specialist focus:
- Methods of addressing fuel poverty are not just income-related: energy efficiency improvements are important too.
- Many of these home improvements require capital expenditure, but can achieve more rapid change than general poverty-alleviation efforts.
- Oil collectives can help reduce fuel prices for rural households off the mains gas grid through collective bargaining and the opportunity to spread fuel payments across the year. There are many local examples, but Devon Communities Together also runs a countywide scheme: Devon Oil Collective.
Community action aimed at supporting those in fuel poverty can be divided into short-term and long-term interventions.
Shorter-term crisis management activity includes:
- small grants to individuals
- advice on switching energy suppliers
- simple insulation measures
- claiming appropriate benefits, grants and discounts
Longer-term or more far-reaching projects might concentrate on:
- raising awareness of energy-saving measures, and larger-scale insulation efforts.
- They might also address the drivers of fuel poverty in a more holistic way, such as through providing a voice for tenants in private rented accommodation.
It is clear that the home-based, in-depth conversations energy advisors have with often-vulnerable householders can reveal a number of different areas in which someone might benefit from support. For example, Plymouth Energy Community advisors have embraced this valuable relationship, and take the opportunity to connect people with one of 40 organisations in their referral, to ensure they get the help they need (see below).
The organisations working to address fuel poverty in Devon have a variety of structures. According to a report produced by Devon County Council, Devon has an impressive 23 community energy organisations, more than any other county in the UK (most based in and around Plymouth or Exeter), and double the number in 2012. Half of these are registered as some form of social enterprise, established to invest their profits for public good, or for the benefit of members, rather than as charities. Although reductions in feed-in tariffs have limited the extent of these income-generation strands, four of Devon’s community energy organisations have community benefit funds, financed through their renewable energy schemes, which are predicted to invest over a million pounds into Devon communities in the period to 2030.
ECoE is a social enterprise, run as a community-owned cooperative. It ran the Healthy Homes for Wellbeing project for the first time in the winter of 2017/18, covering not only Exeter but also Tiverton and most of Mid Devon, East Devon, Torbay and Teignbridge. Under this scheme, ECoE receives funding for consultations with individuals via LEAP (Local Energy Advice Programme: https://www.projectleap.org.uk/), provided by Agility Eco and funded by energy suppliers.
In that first year, despite a late start, there were 385 enquires, and advisors made 184 home visits. Consultations take place in an individual’s home, and typically take between 1 and 2.5 hours. It is a wide-ranging approach, covering assessments of heating, damp, drafts, insulation, meters and mould, as well as energy charging, benefits, etc. Actions can include some remedial measures there and then (eg draft-proofing, fitting LED lightbulbs), advice on behavioural change (eg taking shorter showers, turning down the thermostat), referral for boiler work or a fire service safety check, application for relevant benefits, or action on switching energy suppliers or applying for the warm homes discount. Other technical solutions are available, such as radiator reflectors, shower aerators, and hot water insulation jackets.
For winter 18/19, ECoE is recruiting new specially trained advisors to help meet demand. Although the LEAP funding covers the costs of the visits themselves, it does not take account of potentially long travel times to rural areas, or the extensive and creative outreach work undertaken to ensure referrals from a variety of sources. EcoE works with organisations such as food banks, advice agencies, children’s centres and health visitors, and even spreads the word via local bingo evenings!
Funding these ‘top-up’ activities is hard work. ECoE used to generate income through renewable energy projects, but the recent reduction on feed-in tariffs has meant this is a less viable income stream currently. They also conduct energy awareness training for frontline staff, for example within local councils. DCF funding contributes to these additional expenses, and to the cost of consultations of those who do not qualify for LEAP funding but who are nevertheless vulnerable. This allows ECoE to offer equal access to those in remote locations, to those who are ‘hard-to-reach’, and those not quite meeting eligibility criteria.
Plymouth Energy Community: People
Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) began life in 2013 as a manifesto pledge. Plymouth City Council supported its foundation as a Community Benefit Society, helped recruit 100 founder members, developed a business plan and provides an on-going service level agreement. Beginning with advice and switching, and then including insulation and upgrade measures, the organisation operates independently, with a membership of over 1600 individuals and organisations. PEC established its sister CBS, PEC Renewables, in 2014 and has successfully funded and built 33 community-owned renewable energy installations in the city. Surplus profits from PEC Renewables are invested back into PEC’s grassroots projects.
The government has consistently moved the goalposts on the support mechanisms for renewable energy development, resulting in a slow-down of delivery of new projects and reduction in community benefit. Whilst PEC is developing and exploring new innovative ways to increase locally owned renewable generation, there has to heavier reliance on grant funding that had been originally desired.
People at the Centre
PEC is taking an increasingly person-centred approach to tackling fuel poverty, as it is a complex issue, affecting different people in different ways. What’s more, PEC recognises that there is little point in advising people on energy-saving methods, and giving them armsful of LED lightbulbs if they are pre-occupied with other problems which need addressing first. PEC’s energy advisors are trained in a range of aspects relevant to working with vulnerable people, including suicide awareness, mental health, refugee awareness, etc.
‘Energy can be a good way to open conversations’, says PEC Programme Manager Clare Mains, ‘because it’s practical, and there’s no stigma attached’.
PEC finds these in-depth conversations in people’s homes invaluable in understanding the full picture of how fuel poverty is affecting the household, and what are the ‘blockages’ to them being able to take action to improve their situation. The advisors can link people with over 40 specialist means of support.
But PEC does not stop there. Recognising that there is a great deal of energy and skill within the community that could be put to good use in alleviating fuel poverty and related issues, they run a scheme called PEC Pals, where individuals and organisations interested in supporting PEC’s work can sign up to attend free training, and find the right way for them to work together. Sometimes this might be by helping with an existing programme, in other cases it might lead to whole new initiative. Clare tells me about a woman who was first involved with PEC as a beneficiary through their Warm and Well programme, supporting those living with disabilities or illness who are affected by fuel poverty. She has become a PEC Pal and is helping to develop a ‘curtain bank’, which collects and repurposes curtains to help keep homes warmer.
Clare explains that PEC’s offer to members has evolved to provide a wider range of opportunities for involvement, beyond receiving newsletters, voting or becoming a volunteer Director. PEC had been struggling to find a way of effectively illustrating the work of the Lottery-funded Warm and Well project, and helping people to understand fuel poverty as a whole. A local social enterprise photographic agency consulted participants in the project about what to show people, and the result was Cold Realities, a striking exhibition that has been widely used in Plymouth and further afield, including in the House of Commons, and at national conferences.
This experience has made PEC realise how effective the arts can be in connecting with people. A new project, Pretty Useful, has run a number of workshops with member of the community to explore the creative potential of pliable solar PV technology, and plans an installation in the city in the future.
Is there a danger of ‘mission creep’, with all these new ideas and angles? ‘No!’ says Clare. ‘We don’t draw lines like that: it’s about enabling people’. An example is Gareth, a PEC Pal who was keen to develop a water-refilling station to reduce single-use plastic at festivals. PEC linked him with someone from SouthWest Water, also a PEC Pal, and he has now launched a new Community Interest Company.
What does the future hold? PEC has noticed that it is harder for them to find an appropriate way of engaging the skills of older, lonelier people, but that might be about to change, with the development of Warm Zones, pre-existing community hubs, be they community centres, libraries, cafes, even chip shops. The idea is to provide friendly, warm spaces for people to get together without needing to worry about the heating, as well as providing a boost for local businesses in their quiet periods. PEC hopes older people will be the ones to help coordinate and run this initiative.
PEC is building on its experience in community renewable schemes with a venture into community-led housing. This could give local people the choice to live a healthy, affordable lifestyle in a highly energy-efficient community-owned home that prevents a legacy of fuel poverty. Again, they will be able to shape the outcome to suit the needs of the community.
For PEC, the future is likely to be more political. With such a wealth of grassroots experience in this area, they feel it is important to participate in tackling injustice through advocacy. They have already worked with the All-Party Parliamentary Group in fuel poverty, and have plans to work more closely with the NEA, a national campaign group. One of the areas they feel it is important to comment on is the fact that eligibility criteria for fuel poverty relief are far more complex to get right than they are for carbon-reduction measures: ‘This is not just about the maths, it’s about people’, says Clare.
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