Opinion piece: Lockdown has left many people unable to heat their homes

Last month was the coldest UK January on record for 10 years.  But instead of us feeling a reprieve this month, Storm Darcy has brought with it snow and sub-zero temperatures to much of the country.

Nicholas Harris

When so much of normal life has been restricted and few good news stories make the headlines, these winter scenes provide a fleeting moment of light relief. Even the most haphazardly built snowman proves a welcome distraction.

With little else to do but stay inside, I’ve developed a newfound joy in “hygge” – a term loved by the Danes in their quest to find comfort and conviviality during the winter months – enjoying nights in, warm drinks, and good company.  A gentle pleasantness that only winter can bring.

But a hygge home requires a heated home.  The Government’s recent Fuel Poverty Strategy for England acknowledges that for far too many low-income families are making “stark choices between energy and other essentials or falling into debt”.

Back in April 2020 it was estimated that 2.4 million UK households were experiencing fuel poverty, and it’s believed that at least 600,000 more households have fallen into fuel poverty since the pandemic began. This puts us near the top of the league table in West Europe.

The national lockdown restrictions have undoubtedly made this crisis worse. Whilst the restrictions are such a vital part of our fight against Covid-19, the “stay at home” orders have inevitably meant higher energy bills as families need to heat and power their home for more hours of the day.

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

Behind these figures lies an even darker truth about the effects that a cold home can have on health and wellbeing, with the persistent worry over rising fuel bills and spiralling debt, and the detrimental impact that can have on physical health – cold and damp homes account for around 10,000 excess deaths in the UK each year.

Whilst the Government’s focus on tackling fuel poverty is welcome, it will fail to drive forward change and investment at the pace or scale we need.  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.

Only by making homes more efficient can we make it cheaper to heat and power them. As part of its Net Zero commitments the Government has set an ambitious target, for all homes to meet a minimum of EPC band C standard by 2030. But as of today, only 56% of social housing stock and 33% of private rented stock do.

The Government’s focus is correct – retrofitting the UK’s housing stock will improve the energy efficiency of homes and will be an important element of delivering Net Zero. But the costs are greater than the funding available – recent analysis by Savills suggests that it costs around £25,000 to retrofit each social homes, meaning that it would cost roughly £4.3billion each and every year for the next 25 years to bring all social homes up to standard . Yet the Government has pledged to provide just £3.8 billion over the next decade.

Without accelerated intervention and further investment from Government, the UK will miss the 2030 deadline by some 60years. Without more support now, we risk condemning an entire generation to a fuel-poor future.

IPPR’s report last July, supported by Stonewater, called All Hands to the Pump, showed that a national retrofitting programme could create up to 275,000 jobs in England by 2035, and 325,000 jobs in the UK.  By investing in a long-term plan for decarbonisation today, we’ll build success for tomorrow: creating jobs, driving Net Zero, and helping to end the injustice of fuel poverty.

The pandemic has exposed that in times of greatest need, the vulnerable suffer the most. No-one should have to face a choice between heating or eating.

But with the right ambition and a national programme to deliver, we can end fuel poverty once and for all. Achieving Net Zero must remain a national strategic focus, but we must measure its success in the eradication of fuel poverty – and ensuring that a warm home is an affordable home.

This article was published in The Times on 15 February.