Nobody was spared from feeling the chill last month as the polar vortex nicknamed "Beast From The East" spiralled in from the arctic, heralding an unusual beginning for Spring. However, despite worsening weather and widespread fuel poverty, a new report from energy think tank e3g indicates a 58% cut in public investment in warm homes in England since 2012.
In stark comparison, Scotland spends four times as much per citizen as England on energy efficiency. Wales spends twice as much as England on insulation per person, and Northern Ireland three times as much.
The human cost
According to the ‘End Fuel Poverty Coalition,’ there are around 4.5 million fuel poor homes in the UK today. There are also a further 21 million UK households suffering with poor energy efficiency - below B and C on an Energy Performance Certificate.
A fuel poor household is roughly defined as one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use and to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth (21°C in the living room and 18°C in other occupied rooms).
Evaluations undertaken by both ‘Warm Front’ and ‘the Scottish CHP’ indicated that residents with bedroom temperatures at 21°C are 50% less likely to suffer depression and anxiety than those with temperatures of 15°C.
According to the NHS, keeping warm over the winter months can help prevent colds, flu or more serious health conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia and depression. Fuel poverty is often thought of as a financial problem, but at best poses several health and wellbeing issues for an affected tenant and at worst claims lives.
According to e3g, England has the second worst record on cold weather-related deaths out of 30 European countries. Figures reveal a staggering 32,000 excess winter deaths in the UK over the last 5 years - with 9,700 each year estimated to be linked to living in cold homes.
Warmth should not be a compromise
For those unfortunate enough to find themselves living in fuel poverty, the stresses caused by not being able to afford heating and subsequently falling into debt is severe. A survey undertaken by charitable organisation ‘Save the Children’ recently found that almost half of the parents from the lowest income families actually have to consider whether to heat or eat, sometimes cutting back on food in order to pay their energy bills.
This is obviously unacceptable and we all have a moral obligation to do everything we can to end fuel poverty as soon as possible. Unfortunately, fuel poor homes often have to also make compromises when it comes to maintaining their property for the sake of heating – these compromises are proving expensive for housing associations and social housing landlords, who then have to invest in remedial repairs rather than tacking fuel poverty itself at the source.
Unfortunately there isn’t a single definitive answer for solving the crisis of fuel poverty, it will require a multifaceted approach with effort from everybody – including manufacturers, landlords, councils and government. There is now a large gap between action to deliver warm and efficient homes, and the ambition to do so, and this needs to be addressed.
Greater widespread adoption of alternative methods of heating is most definitely part of the solution. Renewable energy is often thought of as a way to protect our environment, but the truth is that it can also protect the health and wellbeing of people. Heat pumps, for example, extract renewable energy from outdoor air, maximising the energy provided to the household whilst simultaneously offering a reduction in run costs; studies suggest by up to as much as 10% of the UK national average.
In addition to helping the tenant reduce their heating bills, the renewable heat from the heat pump can qualify for quarterly RHI payments for the landlord, which either offsets the cost of the heat pump or provides funds for further upgrades to property and heating. This money would be useful for landlords looking to do something about excess winter deaths, demonstrating that there are many subtle ways to solve a crisis.
Because heat pumps are best suited to more continuous running, they provide a more constant level of comfort for vulnerable residents. Heat pumps allow tenants to heat all of their homes cost effectively, rather than just one or two rooms, which is better for the property. HAs that utilise technologies such as heat pumps like as the market-leading Ecodan range, can take comfort in the knowledge that they are taking care of their tenants as well as their assets.
We don’t need a 58% cut in public investment. We need help, in order to help others. It’s time to make warm homes a national priority.