The appalling neglect of fuel poverty in England is now being starkly revealed

Fuel poverty had slipped down the political agenda for many years. With one in six households now having to face the choice of eating or heating it is now back with a vengeance. Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, a long-time follower of policies and programmes related to fuel poverty, discusses latest developments in the February issue of Energy in Buildings & Industry.

 

Alarm bells ring as fuel poverty soars

We have a fuel poverty crisis. It is now twenty-two years since the murdered MP,  Sir David Amess, steered his Warm Homes & Energy Conservation bill onto the statute book.  This Act committed all of Britain to eliminate fuel poverty. Even so, the number of households still struggling to choose between affording heating and eating is increasing – and is set to rocket this spring.

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.

The fifth Annual Report of this Committee appeared towards the end of last year. It was largely ignored, even by the specialist correspondents. Perhaps there was an expectation that the publication would convey a very similar message to previous years? If so, nobody could have been disappointed.

The Reports 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 of eradicating 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.

Report to 10 Downing Street

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 the then Prime Minister (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.”

Even so, the following year, when 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 to 3.7 million – nearly double the numbers of 2000.The fuel poverty charity, National Energy Action, reckons that number could reach 5 million this year.

Seven years ago,  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 eliminating band D homes by 2025, 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 even these modest objectives, £15.4 billion worth of investment would be required . Given the absence of any subsequent response from Government, the Committee now reckons that £18 billion will be needed.

There is as yet no sign of appropriate funds 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, should Government reckon 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 poorer people living in cold and damp conditions, seemed well-founded.  Until this year’s fuel price hikes were announced by the regulator OFGEM.

EU -wide research has revealed that only one country in Europe has a larger proportion of people living in fuel poverty than the UK. For years,  eliminating fuel poverty had steadily slipped further down the political agenda.

No longer. The appalling neglect of this issue is now being starkly revealed. That one is six households are now regularly forced to choose between eating and heating has become a major political issue again. Finally implementing Sir David’s legislation would be the finest of all tributes to him.

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