Eating or heating: tackling fuel poverty in the UK

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It is a complete scandal that people die because they can’t afford to heat their homes. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows the tragic circumstances and daily dilemma of ‘heating or eating’ faced by many thousands of people in Britain today.”

Those were the words of I, Daniel Blake lead actor Dave Johns as he backed a report published in November 2016 by the charity National Energy Action. The report, which looked at the health problems related to fuel poverty, claimed that a child born today may never see fuel poverty eradicated from the UK unless more assistance is given struggling families.

Identifying the “fuel poor”

In England, according to the most recent official government statistics, more than 2.3 million (10%) households are living in fuel poverty. Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Cornwall are among the places worst affected. At risk groups include single parent households with dependent children, rural households, and those living in the private rented sector. Research also highlights that those customers who use prepay meters, which include a large proportion of the most vulnerable customers, are more likely to be “fuel poor” as they do not have the flexible tariff options and reduced rate deals which are offered to customers who pay via direct debit.

The picture is not much better elsewhere in the UK. A report produced by the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group estimated that there are currently over 800,000 households (35%) living in fuel poverty, with levels as high as 50% in rural areas. Meanwhile, in Wales the latest estimates suggest that 23% of households are currently living in fuel poverty.

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Tackling the causes of fuel poverty

Not being able to afford to heat your home, or having to choose between eating or heating is the stark choice many families in the UK are being forced to make, however it is clear that fuel poverty stems from a number of different factors, including the cost of fuel, the price of energy, and rising energy consumption habits.

The latest Scottish Government strategy on tackling fuel poverty suggests that four drivers of fuel poverty need to be tackled before fuel poverty can be eradicated. These are:

  • Raising incomes  8 out of 10 households (in Scotland) in income poverty are also fuel poor.
  • Making energy costs affordable  in many cases the cost of fuel is rising faster than household incomes.
  • Improving energy performance in housing  people living in a home with low energy performance are 3.5 times as likely to be suffering from fuel poverty as those in a home with high energy performance.
  • Changing habits of energy use  adopting energy-saving behaviours can make a significant difference to fuel bills by reducing overall demand. There is also a need to better understand and increase use of “green energy”.

But what about energy suppliers?

In December 2016, a report from Turn2Us suggested  that two million households suffer from fuel poverty. Subsequently, the “big six” energy suppliers met at Westminster to discuss what they could do to help tackle fuel poverty. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for energy companies to take action to reduce fuel poverty. However, they are coming under increasing pressure to help tackle fuel poverty, by reflecting some of their profit margins in the rates they give to customers. The idea of automatically putting vulnerable or “at risk” customers onto the lowest fuel tariff was discussed. However the bulk of the discussion, according to reports, concentrated on how to increase awareness of existing options, including the government-led Warm Home Discount, individual support grants, the Cold Weather Payment, and practical support from suppliers themselves.warm fire

Practical strategies to tackle fuel poverty

A number of schemes have been developed to try to help tackle fuel poverty, with national roll outs being supplemented by more localised programmes often funded by local authorities or charities.

In November 2016 the Scottish Government pledged an extra £10m to be spent on tackling fuel poverty. £9m was allocated for councils and housing associations to make it easier for tenants to heat their homes. A further £1m is to be made available to provide interest free loans to help people make their homes more energy efficient.

Other schemes have also been introduced by local authorities to try and tackle fuel poverty, including Ready to Switch? Launched in November 2012, Peterborough City Council’s collective switching scheme uses the combined buying power of residents and businesses within the community to negotiate cheaper prices with energy companies. According to figures from Peterborough Council, to date, hundreds of households have switched to save on gas and electricity, with some reducing annual bills by nearly £150.

Boilers on prescription (BoP) is a new funding stream which is being tested in a number of local authority areas, including Sunderland. The fund is managed through NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and householders at risk of cold related illnesses are referred for heating upgrades via health professionals. One of the main ideas behind BoP is to reduce a resident’s need for NHS interventions by improving their thermal comfort at home. It is hoped that a warmer, healthier home could reduce the number of GP appointments or emergency admissions.

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Altering the design of new homes and subsidising the retrofitting of older ones is also a key policy strategy for tackling fuel poverty. Providing homes which are designed or adapted to be energy efficient through improved insulation, the installation of solar panels or using appropriate lighting or heating systems will allow the government not only to reduce fuel poverty in the present, but should also reduce the likelihood of more people falling into fuel poverty in the future. Reducing the demand for energy by creating homes which use less of it may also help to drive down the cost of energy, resulting in even bigger savings. However, it is not just the responsibility of individual homeowners to carry out these improvements. Local authorities, housing associations and private landlords also need to (and have in many instances) recognise the vital role they play, particularly in relation to more vulnerable customers who are at increased risk of falling into fuel poverty. Retrofitting has been increasingly popular in other parts of Europe, as these case study examples show.

The issue of fuel poverty in the UK does not appear to be going anywhere fast. Despite the attempts of governments across the UK to reduce the figure, in many areas the number of people falling into fuel poverty continues to rise. While there are individual areas of good practice aiming to help some of the UK’s most vulnerable families to heat their homes, it is clear that a wider commitment to combat the underlying causes of fuel poverty is needed, along with a recognition that there is a responsibility across the board to provide help and information to families suffering as a result of fuel poverty.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our blog on the Dutch Energiesprong model and our research briefing on retrofitting (member access only).

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Energiesprong: how a Dutch solution could improve Britain’s energy inefficient housing

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. A 2015 study by the Association for the Conservation of Energy found that the UK has among the highest rates of fuel poverty and one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe. In terms of energy efficiency, the UK housing’s walls came 7th out of the 11 countries analysed, while its roofs were ranked 8th, its floors 10th and its windows 11th.

Badly heated housing has significant impacts on health. In 2011, an analysis by Friends of the Earth highlighted the links between cold housing and poor mental and physical health:

“The main health conditions associated with cold housing are circulatory diseases, respiratory problems and mental ill-health. Other conditions influenced or exacerbated by cold housing include the common flu and cold, as well as arthritis and rheumatisms.”

However, people living in energy inefficient homes are often those least able to afford the necessary retrofits, such as insulation, new boilers and double glazing.

The rise and fall of the Green Deal

In 2013, the coalition government launched the Green Deal, a retrofitting programme that aimed to provide an affordable solution for low-income households struggling to keep their homes warm. However, it soon became clear that the Green Deal was too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer, and too hard for householders to understand. After three years of disappointing take-up, the scheme was scrapped in 2015.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, agencies supporting fuel-poor households have been trying to fill the gap. The Trussell Trust, for example, has been opening “fuel banks” in towns and cities across the UK, providing vouchers for paying gas and electricity bills.  Important as they are, these initiatives cannot take the place of housing improvements.

An energy leap forward

The demise of the Green Deal left a gap in the UK’s retrofitting market. However, a recent initiative that shares some of the features of the Green Deal has shown early promise as a possible substitute.

The Energiesprong (“energy leap”) model has its origins in the Netherlands. Energiesprong is a network of organisations committed to urban and regional development. It brokered a deal between housing associations and builders to refurbish houses to net zero energy levels. This means the homes do not consume more energy for heating, hot water and electricity than they produce. Householders commit themselves not to use any more energy than an agreed amount. If they do, additional charges apply, but these are likely to be minimal thanks to the improvements in insulation.

So far, the Dutch scheme has proved successful; the first 800 retrofitted homes have performed better than expected, producing more energy than they consume. The tenants are very satisfied with the improvements and Dutch housing associations have committed to upgrade 111,000 homes under a wider roll-out.

Energiesprong in Britain

The Energiesprong concept is now being applied in the UK, where property developers are working with local authorities and social housing providers on prototypes.

Housing associations will finance the up-front costs of the work, including external wall insulation, roofing and renewables. These will be repaid by the energy cost savings resulting from the upgrade. Unlike the Green Deal, however, the Energiesprong concept is more straightforward and easier for consumers to understand, and refurbishments can be carried out within 10 days. In the UK, between 10 and 30 homes have been undergoing improvements in pilot projects during 2016, with a target of 5000 retrofitted homes by 2018.

The concept also has something to offer owner-occupiers; in addition to improving a property’s energy efficiency, Energiesprong also delivers a better-looking exterior. As Energiesprong UK director Arno Schmickler explained to Architects’ Journal:

“We are trying to position a high-quality, desirable product, to make your neighbours jealous – that really works.”

An off-the shelf retrofit?

The Energiesprong process in the UK must overcome significant challenges before it can achieve the levels of success seen in the Netherlands. Although it has secured European Commission funding, Energiesprong UK could achieve a much greater impact with government support. In addition, changes to planning guidance will be required to enable retrofitting without the need for explicit planning permission. The UK retrofitting sector must also make technical and cultural adaptations if it is to emulate the impact of their Dutch counterparts.

But if Energiesprong takes off in the UK, Arno Schmickler foresees the day when retrofitting could become as straightforward as choosing a new sofa:

“We want to position this where you could walk into, dare I say it, Ikea, and buy your Energiesprong solution while you’re kitting out your home with new furniture. ‘That’s how easy it should become.”



Read our other blog posts on energy efficiency in homes:

BIM: the digitisation of the built environment

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last month, the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde hosted a seminar on the digitisation of the built environment and how digital is disrupting the construction sector. The event focused on the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and its use in Scotland in particular.

What is BIM?

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As defined in the UK government’s industrial strategy, BIM is “a collaborative way of working, underpinned by the digital technologies which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining our assets”. Specifically, it embeds key product and asset data, and a 3D computer model that manages information throughout a project’s lifecycle. BIM has been described as a “game changer” for the construction industry, and can be used in the construction of new buildings as well as retrofitting and refurbishment.

Speaker: David Philp, AECOM

The first presentation came from David Philp, Global BIM/MIC Consulting Director of AECOM and the Chair of the Scottish Futures Trust’s BIM Delivery Group. The Group was established on the recommendation of the Scottish Government’s 2013 Review of Scottish Public Sector Procurement in Construction, and tasked with delivering a BIM implementation plan for the country, which was published in September 2015.

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David focused on the pathway set out in the implementation plan for Scottish public sector projects worth over £4.32m to adopt Level 2 BIM by 2017, as recommended by the 2013 review. In England, the industry was required to have adopted Level 2 by April of this year; a recent survey carried out by Construction News found that almost 70% of main contractors, consultants, professional services and clients had either fully embedded the Level 2 standards into their systems, or were using Level 2 when it suited the project.

The suitability of different levels was something that David stated was important to consider on a case by case basis – while the goal is to be Level 2 capable, sometimes Level 1 may be more appropriate. This is different to the approach taken in England, where the government has mandated that only Level 2 should be used from now on. As highlighted by David, the Chancellor’s latest Budget also included a commitment to “develop the next digital standard for the construction sector – Building Information Modelling 3 – to save owners of built assets billions of pounds a year in unnecessary costs, and maintain the UK’s global leadership in digital construction”.

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David also described the benefits of using BIM, particularly Level 2, in construction projects, in terms of efficiency, reducing risk and the creation of more sustainable and intelligent infrastructure. He also touched on the use of BIM in the construction of the High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham (HS2), due to begin in 2017. BIM has been described as the “backbone” of the HS2 project, which will be the largest BIM project undertaken in Europe so far.

Speaker: Professor Bimal Kumar, Glasgow Caledonian University

The seminar concluded with a presentation by Professor Kumar, Head of BIM at GCU’s School of Engineering and Built Environment. Professor Kumar, who works with David Philp as part of the BIM 4 Academia Working Group spoke about his department’s work in embedding BIM into the taught curriculum of the courses they offer, as well as his work in developing a BIM strategy for NHS Scotland, which involved mapping their existing processes to BIM processes.

Professor Kumar also shared some of his personal opinions on the adoption of BIM in Scotland, stating his belief that it will take another 30 years before Level 3 is fully adopted. He emphasised the need to ‘demistify’ BIM, as too many organisations still think that it will cost them too much in terms of effort and money to comply with the standards.

Overall, the seminar offered a good opportunity to find out more about something that, while mystifying to most, is set to transform the global construction industry.


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