While Britain has had one form of advisory group or another addressing fuel poverty for close to 20 years, it is shocking how little attention it is receiving. Andrew Warren, former special advisor to the House of Commons select committee on the environment and a well-known proponent of energy efficiency, writes on the BusinessGreen website about the state of affairs today for fuel poverty policies and programmes. It is shocking when he writes: “Ever since 2013, there has been no publicly funded national programme designed to improve the energy standards of low income households in England. In contrast, thankfully, each of the devolved nations have continued to build upon the resources they provide for designated publicly-funded fuel poverty programmes.” How can it be in England? Yes, the government was imposing austerity, but surely not when it leads to deadly impact from fuel poverty. What are your views on this? How is it in your country?
Public outrage is our best weapon against fuel poverty
We have a fuel poverty crisis. Nineteen years after the passage of the Warm Homes & Energy Conservation Act, which committed all of Britain, to eliminate fuel poverty, the number of households struggling to choose between affording heating and eating is still increasing.
The original Warm Homes Act mandated the creation of formal external advisory bodies for each of the four home nations. Between 2001 and 2014 in England that was called the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group (FPAG). All its members, including its chairman, were unpaid appointees. (Full personal disclosure: for eight years to 2014, I was a member of that Advisory Group).
Since 2015, the role has been performed by a new external Committee on Fuel Poverty. Its remit remains broadly the same. Apart from one person, everybody else appointed to it had never served on the previous Advisory Group. One significant difference is that now all members are remunerated from the public purse – we just got sandwiches at lunchtime.
The third Annual Report of the new(ish) Committee appeared earlier this year. I attended the press conference to launch the Report. It was not a Standing Room Only occasion. Perhaps there was an expectation that the publication would convey a very similar message to previous years? If so, nobody could have been disappointed.
Ever shriller annual reports
It does follow a pattern introduced under the old FPAG. We would publish an Annual Report, pointing out the inadequacies of existing policies to achieve the government’s declared policy objectives on fuel poverty. These Reports became steadily shriller, as Government-funding programmes to improve the energy efficiency of homes in fuel poverty reduced, and then disappeared altogether.
Ever since 2013, there has been no publicly funded national programme designed to improve the energy standards of low income households in England. In contrast, thankfully, each of the devolved nations have continued to build upon the resources they provide for designated publicly-funded fuel poverty programmes.
“Eradicate fuel poverty by 2016” promises Prime Minister
I recall we sent the 2013 FPAG Annual Report to 10 Downing Street – and received a detailed letter in response. Not from some correspondence clerk, or general factotum. But instead written and signed by David Cameron himself.
In it, he significantly wrote that he was committed to assisting the Group “as we work towards our 2016 fuel poverty eradication target.”
The following year, in 2014 his Government updated its formal strategy for fuel poverty. It made absolutely no reference to achieving that eradication target. Since then, the number of English households suffering fuel poverty has increased by a further 210,000 to 2.55 million – far higher than in 2000.
Instead the declared statutory target was altered, to become that by 2030 “as many fuel poverty households as reasonably practicable (sic) achieve a minimum energy efficiency rating of a Band C energy performance certificate.” Two interim milestones of Band D by 2020 and Band E by 2020 were cited. And later reiterated in the official 2017 Clean Growth Strategy.
In its 2017 Annual Report, the Committee on Fuel Poverty had reckoned that, to deliver these objectives, £15.4 billion worth of investment would be required. Given the absence of any subsequent response from Government, the Committee now reckons that £17.1 billion will be needed.
Legal weasel words
Even to match that modest 2020 milestone, the Treasury will need to find an extra £1bilion. There is as yet no sign of that being forthcoming. Which is why those weasel words I cited above, of improving as many fuel poverty households “as reasonably practicable”, may well become relevant again.
That seemingly innocuous phrase had been introduced into the original Warm Homes Act back in 2000. Prompted by hypothetical concerns that an illogical householder in fuel poverty might be standing in his doorway, shotgun in hand, refusing entry to those arriving to upgrade the homestead.
Already alarmed at the overt absence of sufficient progress towards the elimination of fuel poverty, back in 2008 several FPAG members had taken the Government to the High Court, then the Appeal Court, demanding far more purposeful action via greater public expenditure towards the elimination of fuel poverty.
The Government won in Court, via the tactic of arguing that “as far as reasonably practicable” means that any increased funding need only be forthcoming, if Government reckons that abolishing fuel poverty is sufficient of a priority to divert more public money to it. In other words, only if there is sufficient public outcry.
Sadly that official cynicism, regarding the level of public alarm about the millions of poor people living in cold and damp conditions, seems well-founded. That poorly attended press launch of the Committee on Fuel Poverty’s latest annual report received almost no media coverage.
It should be noted that the same weasel worded get-out-of-jail-free clause also appears in the Climate Change Act 200 – an excellent reason for ensuring contuses publicity regarding the importance of addressing the threat of a changing climate.
Recent Europe-wide research has revealed that, across the entire EU:28, the UK has the second largest proportion of people living in fuel poverty (Estonia alone is worse). It seems that the Biblical misinterpretation that “the poor are always with us” means that, crisis or no, eliminating fuel poverty has steadily slipped down the political agenda.
This is a tragedy. Particularly for the 2.55 million English households still regularly forced to choose between eating and heating.