Why does it matter to save energy?
For many years a household was said to be in fuel poverty if it needed to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to provide adequate heating for comfort and health (usually 21 degrees for the main living area, and 18 degrees for other occupied rooms). However, in 2013 the official definition for English households changed. Now a household is defined as 'fuel poor' if its:
- total income is below the poverty line (taking into account energy costs); and
- energy costs are higher than typical.
See the government's announcement of the changes here. This redefinition, which applies only to England, instantly cut the number of 'fuel poor' households from some 3.5 to 2.5 million. The government also dropped its legal commitment to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016, and instead shifted focus "on improving the energy efficiency of the homes of the fuel poor". Critics viewed this as simply 'moving the goalposts' and a retreat from meaningful action to tackle the misery inflicted by ever-rising fuel bills. In other parts of the UK, statistics on fuel poverty are collected by the devolved governments, and the 10% definition still applies.
Fuel poverty is caused by the interaction of a number of factors, in particular:
- The thermal efficiency of the property
- Fuel costs
- Household income
Households on low income generally have no control over these factors and are unable to improve their situation.
Survey of fuel poverty
The most recent Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics Report (2016), published by DECC, deals only with England, and records that around 2.38 million English households were in fuel poverty in 2014, representing about 10% of all households, and a 1.4% increase over the previous year.
According to National Energy Action, statistics from the UK as a whole reveal that fuel poverty affects over 4 million, or roughly 15%, of households. Twenty percent of households in the private rented sector are fuel poor, and 44% of all fuel-poor households live in properties with the lowest energy ratings. The fuel poor included about 3.3 million vulnerable households.
The West Midlands is one of the worst affected areas, with 12% of households classed as fuel poor. Figures published by Staffordshire Observatory in 2016 show that in Stafford Borough, the level of fuel-poor households was 11.2%, which compares with a rate of 11.3% for Staffordshire as a whole.
- The incidence of fuel poverty is linked to the energy performance of the property: it is much more common in hard-to-heat dwellings. 31% of the lowest energy-rated properties have fuel-poor occupants.
- Highest rates of fuel poverty are in the privately rented sector.
- Unemployed households have the highest rates of fuel poverty.
- 25% of lone parent households are in fuel poverty.
The cost of fuel varies depending on the fuel company and the tariff; for example pre-payment meters increase the chances of living in fuel poverty, as energy costs are generally much higher than for those paying by direct debit. However, there are exceptions even to this.
Clearly, well targeted energy efficiency campaigns can help to alleviate fuel poverty by reducing fuel bills for vulnerable households by improving insulation and heating systems.
Rural areas often bear the brunt of fuel poverty. See Rural communities hit hardest by rising energy costs
Fuel poverty and ill health
Fuel poverty is a major factor contributing to the greater numbers of deaths, especially of elderly people, occurring in the winter months December to March, compared with other times of the year. For example, over the winter 2014/15, 27% more people died compared with non-winter months, amounting to an extra 43,900 deaths. Britain has the highest number of avoidable deaths due to winter cold in Western Europe. As for children, fuel poverty can lead to educational under-achievement, social exclusion, and physical and psychological ill health.
Cold and damp living conditions can quickly cause poor health, so it is vital that all possible steps are taken to safeguard vulnerable people. See Winter warmth keeps you well.
- National Energy Action aims to eradicate fuel poverty and campaigns for greater investment in energy efficiency to help those who are poor or vulnerable.
- Beat the Cold works to reduce the incidence of cold-related illness and fuel poverty in North Staffordshire
- Committee on Fuel Poverty – public body that advises government on strategies aimed at reducing fuel poverty
- Citizens Advice Consumer Service provides free, confidential and impartial advice on gas and electricity supplies
- National Right to Fuel Campaign Campaigning for an end to fuel poverty by securing a warm, dry, well lit home for all, regardless of income or location.
- OFGEM promotes choice and value for gas and electricity customers and helps to tackle fuel poverty through its Social Action Strategy.