This post is by Hayden Banks, parliamentary and public affairs officer at National Energy Action.
Today is Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, a day organised by us at National Energy Action each year as part of our campaign to eradicate fuel poverty in the UK. This year it is taking place in exceptional circumstances. Wholesale gas prices have risen by 130 per cent over the past 18 months, driving a record 6.7 million households into fuel poverty this winter. The number will rise to 8.4 million by next April. People are being priced out of having a warm home. Fuel poverty, its causes and its devastating impacts on health and wellbeing, have never been more acute or higher on the political agenda. So, this year we are focusing on those most at risk.
Even with support energy bills are too high for many
We know the government has intervened to support households by limiting the average household annual energy bill to £2,500, rising to £3,000 from April 2023. But, despite such a move being welcome and easing the pain slightly for middle income households, for those on the lowest incomes and in the least efficient homes, this level is still unmanageable. It is over double the price cap this time last year. Imagine thinking last October that an average energy bill of £2,500 a year would be a good thing? That’s how dire this crisis has become. On top of rising inflation driving up food prices and rents, and stagnating wages, there is no quick and easy route out of this hardship for millions of people across the country.
The UK government has provided significant support to households in the social security system. From our work providing advice, we know all too well that many fuel poor households do not receive benefits and, therefore, will not be eligible for this support. Millions of low income, vulnerable households will miss out, and some of those have high energy use due to medical conditions.
Government figures from 2020 suggested that 30 per cent of households in fuel poverty were not receiving means tested benefits. It is likely that is now an underestimate. This is why we are calling for more support for households outside the benefits system.
Financially vulnerable households, who are carers, disabled or have a medical condition, making them more vulnerable to the cold, need more support. This could be through a social tariff, which the government has already said it is considering as a replacement to the Energy Price Guarantee in April 2024. A similar tariff operates in other countries like Belgium.
It will take 150 years for the government to hit its targets
But such support is only a short term solution. Households struggling to pay their energy bills need help to insulate their homes much more quickly. As it stands, it will take 150 years to meet the government’s own legal target to ensure all low income households live in homes with an energy efficiency rating of EPC C or better. Failing to do so is having grave consequences.
Even before the temperature started to drop this winter, we have seen cases of people turning to desperate measures to keep warm. Elderly, vulnerable people are riding around on buses because they cannot afford to put their heating on. Households are rationing their energy, families are not sending children to school because they cannot afford to wash their school uniforms, pensioners are lighting candles to avoid using electricity. And, in some cases, the results could be devastating. People with medical conditions are at risk of being disconnected from their energy supply.
But this situation was not inevitable. We already have the solutions. More financial support is needed in the short term, but energy demand and bills will be cut long term with grants that fully fund low income households to improve the efficiency of their homes.