After a decade of market-driven policy failure, Britain remains the ‘cold man of Europe’

Britain has homes that are older, draughtier and harder to heat than anywhere else in western Europe. The poor are paying for the problem that is much older than the current energy crisis. Caroline Molloy discusses in an article on the Open Democracy website.

 

Putin isn’t to blame for fuel poverty in the UK – the government is

A one-time senior government adviser exhorted Britons this week to turn their thermostats down to show Vladimir Putin that our moral fibre had not been “rotted by liberalism”.

Adair Turner was arguing that the UK needed to be willing to make sacrifices to reduce its dependence on Russian-produced fossil fuels, amid fears that the Kremlin could cut off supplies to Europe altogether.

But his advice will have been little help to Les*, a handyman and gardener who winces when I broach the subject of energy bills with him.

Last year, he tells me, his landlady installed electric night storage heaters in his draughty, off-gas grid rural home. “Which would be great – if I could afford to turn them on.” Les’s monthly electricity bill is now £110, which he says is a “scary” proportion of his income. He also worries the new heaters will be used as an excuse to put his rent up.

“I try not to think about it all,” he says. “I don’t often have sleepless nights but over this…” He tails off, then seems to want to reassure me. “Two duvets keep you quite warm.”

After a decade of market-driven policy failure, Britain remains the ‘cold man of Europe’, with homes that are older, leakier, draughtier, and thus harder and more costly to heat, than anywhere else in western Europe.

Around 80% of our energy bills go on heating our homes, mostly on space rather than water heating.

And exhortations to make “sacrifices” won’t fix the fact that, from April, the average British household will face fuel bills equivalent to £2,000 a year, with that figure predicted to rise by 50% again in the autumn. Next month’s rise will plunge a quarter of English households into fuel poverty – defined by the charity National Energy Action as being unable to power your home adequately without falling below the official poverty level.

Like Les, Laura – who has asked us not to publish her surname – and her three kids have also spent a fair chunk of this winter “wrapped up in layers, sat in bed with the quilt wrapped around us to keep warm”.

The family’s income fell drastically when Laura’s partner had to take sick leave with two successive bouts of COVID. In the past year or so, the amount she has to put into her gas and electricity prepayment meters every week has jumped from £15 to more than £35 on each.

She tells me: “I’ve gone a couple of days without anything to eat so I can make sure my children can eat.”

Laura’s Sheffield home hasn’t had any energy efficiency improvements in the ten years she’s been there, and she says it’s noticeably cold downstairs, even when the heating is on. A year ago, she asked her housing association for help with simple measures, such as improving the draughty doors, but hasn’t heard back.

“It’s a nightmare,” she says. “You’re stuck in a corner and there’s no way out. I cry most nights.”

How did we get here?

The last time soaring bills were in the headlines it was 2013. Back then, responding to lobbying from the Right and energy companies, prime minister David Cameron’s solution was to “cut the green crap”. In other words, he scrapped and watered down the obligations on suppliers and government over energy efficiency and renewable measures, a move that was (supposedly) meant to cut bills in the short term.

As a result, the uptake of basic but effective energy efficiency measures, like loft and cavity wall installation, which had been rising steadily up to 2012, plummeted by 90% that year, and has stayed pathetically low ever since. Such measures have been found to reduce energy bills by a fifth. But nearly a decade later, over half of English lofts still have either no loft insulation at all, or far less than the current recommended level, according to official figures published last summer. The slashing of these energy efficiency schemes has cost nine million households an average of £170 a year, according to recent analysis by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

Yet Boris Johnson is now being lobbied with the same messages as Cameron was. Lord Frost, a Cabinet Office minister, campaigns against the “green” and “woke” agenda in the Daily Mail and The Sun, blaming it for the problems of “hard-pressed people” seeing their energy bills rising. Nigel Farage tells the Daily Mail that plans to decarbonise homes and transport will see the elderly “die colder, poorer and sooner”.

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