We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot

Why David Bowie got it right on fuel poverty strategy

13 October 2014

At the Spending Review in October 2010 the Government announced that they would commission an independent review of fuel poverty in the UK. This week we submitted our response to the consultation on their proposed strategy. At best we can hope to finally see something akin to a strategy by 2015.

As David Bowie said, “We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot”. Back in 2012 I wrote about my dissatisfaction with the Government’s efforts on fuel poverty since 2001. Since then, we’ve had a delayed strategy and a further decrease in spending on measures to combat the issue. Bowie offers some more poignant lyrics at the beginning of the song 'Five Years':

“Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lyin'.”

They're poignant to me because 45% of the 'Low Income High Cost' fuel poor are households that contain children, and 31,100 excess winter deaths occurred in England and Wales in 2012/13 (a 29% increase compared with the previous winter). According to the World Health Organisation, between 30% and 50% of excess winter deaths can be attributed to cold indoor temperatures. Furthermore, Age UK has estimated that that illnesses caused by cold homes cost the NHS £1.3 billion a year... I could go on and on with statistic after statistic highlighting the importance and urgency of the matter.

Given the clear need to address fuel poverty, you would expect the Government to develop a strategy and take measures to address this issue pretty promptly. But when the strategy finally emerged after five years of deliberation, it represented little more than a policy statement. The strategy was missing all of the necessary components to develop a route map and action plan to actually reach the goals. Pretty frustrating. Our response attempts to address this by posing the key questions that they failed to address (download it here).

Our key recommendations, in summary, are:

  • Define 'reasonably practicable' either by a simple cost threshold (i.e. the measures will cost below £10,000) or be based on a measure that captures both economic benefits (to the householder and wider economy through employment gains) and the health benefits (i.e. there will be a certain amount of savings to the NHS as well as improved QALYs).
  • Target all low income households, not just Low Income High Cost (LIHC) households.
  • Improve as many low income homes as reasonably practicable (as defined above) to a minimum energy efficiency standard of Band C by 2025.
  • We propose the setting of the following interim milestones in the new fuel poverty strategy:
    - as many F and G rated low income homes as reasonably practicable are improved to Band D by 2020 (or ‘C’ if a final target of Band B by 2030 is adopted)
    - as many D and E rated low income homes as reasonably practicable are improved to Band C by 2025 (or B if a final target of Band B by 2030 is adopted) 
    - and (if a final target of Band B by 2030 is adopted) as many C rated low income homes as reasonably practicable are improved to Band B by 2025
  • Funding from energy suppliers alone is not enough to meet the required expenditure. We need to invest in a locally-based programme of retrofit for low income households that accesses funds from our housing infrastructure budgets, energy suppliers, and through the health service to prevent cold-related illnesses.
  • There needs to be a costed delivery plan which identifies the packages of measures required for different property types at differing starting efficiencies. The plan needs to account for tenure as this influences the investment decision, and also rurality as this has an impact upon delivery costs
  • There need to be cross-departmental targets 
  • The budgetary requirements to meet the targets need to be defined at a sub-regional level

As part of the consultation process, a series of seminars were held around the country, jointly organised by NEA, DECC and SSE. On the face it, these events appeared to be a real attempt to engage a wide group of stakeholders with the consultation process; during the Bristol Seminar we were told by a representative of DECC that every single consultation response would be thoroughly considered. We truly hope so. But then he didn’t weep when he said this, so we don’t know if he was lyin’…


Image: Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision

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