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Stoking the Fuel Poverty Fire

It’s been on the back burner for over a year now, but in the last week the heat has been turned up on proposals to redefine fuel poverty.

13th December 2013    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

The change would see the official tally for households currently in the category fall from 3.2 million to 2.4 million, almost a third of the original figure, and there have been accusations of goalpost shifting in the name of favourable statistics. Currently a home is classified as being in fuel poverty if it has to spend 10% or more of its total income on maintaining a ‘satisfactory’ level of heat. The new definition, however, proposes a more abstract perspective: if a household has above average fuel costs that leave them with a ‘residual income below the official poverty line’ they will be put in the bracket.

The trouble is that many of the households struggling to stay warm every winter do not have ‘above average’ requirements, indeed some of them may live in houses that are far smaller than those that require an ‘above average’ level of fuel. What this new definition forgets is that keeping a small house warm can be just as challenging as a large one if you’ve not got the resources to do so. It also ignores the effect of initiatives such as two-tier fuel rates, which mean that those who use less energy in total are paying up to a third more for it because they never use enough to tip themselves into the cheaper tariff.

The official party line is that the new method of determining fuel poverty will give a more accurate picture of those really in need. I would argue however that, although there were loopholes in the previous classification, it is dangerous to simply write off huge swathes of those affected by fuel poverty just because they have below average total consumption. It doesn’t matter if you live in a big house, an old house, a house that leaks heat from every window or the most insulated and energy efficient house in the United Kingdom: if you can’t keep warm, there’s a problem.

A sceptic may at this point also cast a sideways glance to the now seldom-mentioned legislative target written in 2002 that states: ‘by 22 November 2016 no person in England should have to live in fuel poverty.’ As we hurtle towards that date it is clear to everyone, Government officials included, that there is no hope of achieving such an ambitious goal. Indeed in his foreword to this July’s Fuel Poverty Framework, Ed Davey MP wrote plainly that ‘it is not a problem that can be eradicated in any meaningful way, certainly not by 2016, and not in any short time horizon.’ It would take a real leap of faith, however, to unquestioningly accept that there is no vested interest at play here in tweaking the official figures to look a little more heartening.

What can’t be denied is that, year on year, the number of cold-related deaths is going up. Whatever the definition, these are the only figures that matter. Initiatives such as the Green Deal and ECO come under fire from all directions but the truth at the centre of it all is that they are absolutely necessary in the fight against fuel poverty, and ultimately unnecessary death. Government can do what they like with the figures when they are discussed around the table, but it is the situation out in the UK’s homes, and those are homes of every size, that really counts.

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