Tackling fuel poverty in Sutton

Posted on November 14, 2013

fuel poverty images 2I am leading a cross-committee taskforce in Sutton looking at fuel poverty. Fuel poverty has been rising dramatically in recent years, continuing an upward trend that began as long ago as 2003.

Defining fuel poverty is a bit arbitrary; the standard measurement is where households spend over 10% of their overall budget on fuel. The harsh vice of the economic downturn and ever-rising energy bills looks set to push many into this situation in the coming years.

By this yardstick 10.9% of the UK is experiencing fuel poverty, 9.2% in London. Dividing each ward into up to smaller areas – particularly using natural ‘boundaries’ between estates and mostly-private homes – reveals deep pockets of fuel poverty concentrated in social housing and terraces.

Nationally over 25% of those experiencing fuel poverty live in private rented accommodation.  Private landlords, especially those renting out individual flats, will need to be part of the effort to combat fuel poverty not least because higher private rents compared to the social sector may play a role in forcing tenants to forfeit heating in order to make ends meet.

The supply of both gas and electricity from different energy suppliers which can push up fuel costs – and the existence of pre-pay meters that mostly penalise customers by charging higher tariffs per unit are major issues. I blogged about pre-payment meters in April, which are an outrageous and completely unjustifiable tax on poverty.

The use of gas by low income households accounts for 74.5% of all those suffering fuel poverty in the UK, and the size of the household also matters; quite simply the more mouths to feed the less money is available for heating. Fuel poverty is far from confined to pensioners and I was surprised by how many citizens under the age of 24 are in this situation. As expected, lone parents, the unemployed and those living with mental health issues are vastly over-represented.

It is enormously frustrating, and highly ironic, that the national Government have cut Sutton Council’s ‘Warm Homes’ fund at the very time when the local authority is trying to combat fuel poverty.

The taskforce have produced an initial strategy report and are working with Age UK, the Credit Union, social workers, home care visitors and social and private landlords to devise solutions. It is important that everyone takes ownership of the process as any action will be delivered primarily by agencies.

At the same time designing an action plan for tackling fuel poverty the taskforce should not shy away from addressing the big issues causing the problem, including factors that are technically out of our hands like fuel bills and pre-payment meters.

Bristol City Council’s example of setting up an energy company can open the way for local authorities to lower people’s fuel bills by taking charge of the utility provision. 

Council’s can also coordinate collective bargaining for lower energy suppliers rather than just leave it to individual customers (the poorer someone is the less likely they are to switch provider) raising the possibility of unified energy provision across a geographical area achieving lower energy costs because town halls are able to flex some negotiating muscle for the benefit of local residents.

At a time when the Conservative Right are seeking to roll back Green levies we need to fight not only to preserve these funds for environmental reasons but create a new Fuel Poverty levy – applied to bills over a certain amount – to ensure energy companies tackle the scourge of fuel poverty. The trick will be to avoid submerging more people into fuel poverty while trying to rescue others – especially those in low income – from it.

The solution is to redesign the definition of fuel poverty so that it is overlayed with income. The combination of measuring the percentage of household income spent on heating with the actual income in financial terms is the best way of defining between the rich who spend more than necessary heating large houses with poor families, so that a new levy can be better targeted at those most able to pay.

Income, and percentage of income spent on energy, are both already measured separately. It is not beyond the wit and wisdom of officialdom to match the two in order to tax those with the broadest shoulders to ensure the poor don’t freeze.

The need to be warm should be a universal right not an optional luxury. There should be a heating extension to Housing Benefit so the unemployed and those on low incomes can have their energy costs paid directly to the utilities for all HB recipients, which would abolish the need for pre-payment meters at a stroke.

These are national policy issues of course, which I hope the taskforce give attention to, however the main piece of work will be to come up with achievable local initiatives to tackle the problem in Sutton, and that will need all the ingenuity, commitment and passion of all the stakeholders in the borough. I will be updating this blog as it develops.

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