CSE research improves support for South Asian Communities

10 June 2022

At the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), our dedicated team of energy advisors offer support to those struggling with high energy bills and cold homes. Our energy advisors hear from a wide range of people every day, regardless of age, race, or gender. But we found that the South Asian community is under-represented amongst referrals to our services.

We created  ‘Staying Warm Together’ to understand more about why this is and how we can adapt our service to better support this community.

CSE’s mission is to make sure everyone can afford to stay warm at home, while also addressing the climate emergency. Cold homes cause many problems for those unable to pay for heating, such as making existing health conditions worse and causing new physical and mental health issues. Research shows that the South Asian community are at higher risk of coronary disease and diabetes and were amongst the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our approach

Together with Dhek Bhal, a community hub organisation that supports the South Asian community in Bristol and South Gloucestershire, and funded by City Funds and Quartet Community Foundation, we interviewed 12 households to explore potential barriers to accessing support.

The people interviewed lived in a mix of owner-occupied homes and homes rented from the council. Each had between three and five bedrooms with three family generations living together. We wanted to know more about their energy use and understand why they might not reach out for support if they needed it.

How much energy was being used?

With multiple generations under one roof, this typically means more people living in larger homes. Many households we interviewed had above-average energy use and bills compared to smaller-sized households. This is partly down to the size of the home, but also because of living arrangements and the varied routine of each family member. It‘s to be expected that both a large property size and multiple occupants means higher-than-average overall bills as it is harder to reduce energy usage and save money.

We found a few other trends which may contribute to their high energy use.

The pandemic caused changes to many of the families’ household situation. Some family members had either lost jobs or been placed on furlough, some of their children were unable to go to school and older people unable to attend day centres. Recently, this meant more people than usual had been at home during the day.

One interviewee stated that ‘we’re all doing things at different times of the day,’ mirroring behaviours of other households. Different generations have separate routines and don’t necessarily all cook and eat meals together.  Most of the families we spoke with mentioned having more than one fridge or freezer. This was explained both in terms of sufficient capacity to feed many mouths and in terms of separate arrangements for food preparation.

Older and younger generations disagree about what is a comfortable temperature in the home. There’s a worry that older family members with health conditions, like arthritis or circulatory diseases, may fall ill or struggle with worsened symptoms of their condition if they're too cold. But some younger family members said their home sometimes overheats, leading them to use electric fans to cool themselves down.

Most of those we talked to said they make efforts to use energy efficiently. Some said that they were struggling to afford their energy bills and had to choose between heating or eating or mentioned their prepayment meter ‘running out quicker,’ adding a strain to their costs. The research took place in late summer 2021, at the start of the increases in energy prices over the last year.

What barriers stopped them from reaching out?

Lack of awareness of the help available is an important barrier. We heard that many in this community are not even aware that independent energy-related advice services exist. They mainly rely on word of mouth within the family or South Asian community network for trusted recommendations.

When told about available services, people from across the older and younger adult generations said they’d feel comfortable accessing advice services if needed. But we were also told that the older generation would initially turn to their own adult children to sort out problems on their behalf. People raised concerns about how time-consuming it could be to access resources and whether they'd even understand the information due to language barriers.

Not all families felt they needed help, with some feeling they were able to manage without additional financial support. This reflects a wide range in the reported annual household income of our sample. The combined income ranged from a reported £14,400 for a household with five adults up to a reported £60,000 for a household with three adults.

Arrangements for paying for and managing bills varied with the responsibility lying with either the homeowner, the main earner, pension recipient or a cross-generational shared responsibility. Several of those we interviewed were unwilling to talk about their finances and income with us. They also revealed they feel uncomfortable talking about their finances with family members across generations. Such discomfort with talking about money within the household may prevent people seeking help, make budgeting and paying bills tricky and stand in the way of the household accessing suitable support.

Many weren’t aware of schemes like the Warm Home Discount, or Priority Services Register, so wouldn’t know to seek this type of support out. In some cases, the combined household income exceeded the threshold for affordable warmth schemes. If they did apply, they wouldn’t meet the requirements needed for supplemented energy efficiency improvements to their homes. But, it was also revealed that older members of the home may be entitled to, but haven’t claimed, a variety of age and disability-related benefits. These can help increase household income and allow the household to apply for other schemes such as the Energy Company Obligation and Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery Scheme.

What can you do to improve your energy advice offering to the South Asian community?

There are clearly obstacles for the South Asian community that makes reaching out difficult. Advice services can do more to include this group, making sure they're heard and understand the help available.

  • Being proactive is key. Going into the community to speak directly to people can go a long way in building trust and discussing different types of help available. One way to do this is to work with community hub organisations that are already familiar and trusted in the community
  • As there are multiple ages within a home, communicating via different channels helps connect with all age groups. Whilst working-age adults may be more able to engage online, in a multi-generational household it may be the oldest generation who own the property and take responsibility for energy bills.
  • The health of older generations is a concern felt by different members of multi-generational households. Advisors can achieve quick wins by checking if an older person is living in the household and is eligible for the Warm Homes Discount and the Priority Services Register.
  • Take time to explain why you’re asking ‘intrusive’ questions, including about health, income, and who lives at the property. This information is needed to identify what help the household may be eligible for and so that the advisor can provide tailored advice.
  • Multi-generational households are likely to be larger and may live in a bigger than average home. They may all have different routines, contributing to overall above-average energy use.
  • Use interpreter services to support effective advice delivery.
  • Employ paid staff from the South Asian community where possible.
  • Outreach and partnership with community organisations can help people access timely support rather than waiting until they are in a crisis situation.

What’s next?

We offered each family a follow-up advice session with an advisor from a South Asian background. Additionally, CSE is developing plans with Dhek Bhal to deliver bi-monthly workshops and drop-in advice sessions so that our service better reaches the local South Asian community.

To learn more about this project and our recommendations for delivering better support to South Asian communities, please read the main report.

Stay up to date with our work - sign up for our fortnightly newsletter