Fuel poverty has become a major political issue again, after decades of neglect

As the price of energy skyrockets, it is time for Britain’s political leaders to finally take action to eliminate fuel poverty, writes British Energy Efficiency Federation’s Andrew Warren

We already have a serious fuel poverty crisis, even before fuel prices increase yet again this autumn by as much as third. It is an impending catastrophe that is apparently being wilfully ignored by those seeking to become our next Prime Minister from September.

It is now 22 years since the murdered MP, Sir David Amess, steered his Warm Homes & Energy Conservation bill onto the statute book. The Act committed all of Britain to eliminate fuel poverty. But despite this, the number of households still struggling to choose between affording heating and eating is increasing.

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 appointmentees. (Full personal disclosure: for eight years to 2014, I was a member of the FPAG).

Since 2015, the role has been performed by a new external Committee on Fuel Poverty, but 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. Its latest chair is now the Rt Hon Caroline Flint.

The fifth Annual Report of the new(ish) Committee appeared towards the end of last year. It was largely ignored, even by the specialists. 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 programs 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 program 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.

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 in 2000. The fuel poverty charity, National Energy Action, reckons that number could reach five 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 od a Band C energy performance certificate.” Two interim milestones of eliminating Band D homes by 2025, and eliminating Band E by 2020 were cited, and later reiterated in the 2017 Clean Growth Strategy .

In its 2017 Annual Report, the Committee on Fuel Poverty had reckoned that to deliver even these modest objectives, £15.4bn worth of investment would be required. Given the absence of any subsequent response from government, the Committee now reckons that £18.1bn will be needed .

There is as yet no sign of appropriate funds being forthcoming. 2020 came and went, leaving so many still living in E, F, even G rated homes. Last winter the average occupant of an E rated home paid out 52 per cent more on gas, 31 per cent more on electricity, than the average C-rated home occupier.

All of 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 their 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 took 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 poor people living in cold and damp conditions, seemed well-founded. That is, until this year’s fuel price hikes were announced.

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 down the political agenda.

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

 

Andrew Warren chairs the British Energy Efficiency Federation

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