Opinion piece: 2021 must be the year we put an end to fuel poverty

Sue Shirt, executive director of Customer Experience at Stonewater, explains why ending fuel poverty in the UK can only be achieved by tackling the root causes of poverty and improving the energy efficiency of homes

Sue Shirt

In the UK, Fuel Poverty has been defined as relating to a household whose total income is below the poverty line after fuel costs have been accounted for, and where households live in a home with an energy efficiency rating below Band C.

In April 2020, it was estimated that 2.4m households in the UK live in fuel poverty by the above definition, and COVID-19 is believed to have added a further 600,000 to this number. This makes the UK the worst country for fuel poverty in western Europe.

The pandemic is an extremely worrying time for people. Not only does lockdown mean we are stuck inside for longer, but furlough, lack of work opportunities, and demands such as schooling children at home all mean that many households are losing income while bills are rising.

People who are already experiencing poverty are also more likely to be in precarious housing situations. These homes are often not energy efficient, which means it costs an additional £325 to heat their home compared to one that’s fuel-efficient.

As COVID deepens existing inequalities, too many low-income families will face a stark choice between paying for energy and other essentials or falling into debt. For some, the result is living in a cold home, which has negative impacts on health and wellbeing. In one of the richest countries in the world, this is unacceptable.

Of course, for many fuel poverty is just poverty by another name, and few people self-identify as being stuck in the cycle of fuel poverty. While some emergency help and financial support does exist for those who are struggling to pay their energy bills, it doesn’t go far enough. There is also limited public awareness of how to access support or who to turn to in times of need.

The Fuel Bank Foundation, a charity which provides emergency financial support to people in fuel crisis, reported last week that it has been a significant increase in demand for its services since the pandemic began  – at some of their centres they’ve seen as much as a 300% increase in demand from struggling households.

At Stonewater, we are working to help our customers who face hardship during the pandemic by providing information on how to navigate the benefit system and offer flexible rent payment arrangements to those in challenging financial circumstances. We are also working closely with our charity partner, the Longleigh Foundation, to offer individual hardship grants to those most in need.

But ending fuel poverty can only be achieved if we tackle the root causes of poverty on one hand, and improve the energy efficiency of our homes on the other.

Amid the growing crisis, and after years of policy standstill, the government has finally published its new fuel poverty strategy. Additional funding for home retrofitting must be a key part of the fight against fuel poverty – but more must be done too to relieve the pressure on those who are suffering right now.

With COVID set to dominate our lives for the rest of this winter, the government must make it a priority to ensure fuel-poor households are given the support they so desperately need.

You can read the full article on the Housing Digital website