There is a new epidemic which is spreading through Britain. At first it affected only the very poor and vulnerable members of society but its grip is expanding. It is not contagious and cannot be treated by doctors or with medicines. It is not a physical or mental illness, but it can and does cause misery and even death. Its name is Fuel Poverty.
OK, so the paragraph above might seem a little melodramatic and that is the intention but fuel poverty is a very serious problem and is affecting more and more low income and even average income families in Britain each year. As fuel prices continue to rise way ahead of the rate of income increases the problem looks set to continue to worsen.
What is Fuel Poverty?
A family is officially defined as being in fuel poverty if 10% or more of household income is being spent on heating the home (or would need to be spent to heat the home to a reasonable standard). The effect is that hundreds of thousands of people, including children of course, can only be warm during the school or work day. The effect on children can be particularly severe. Being in such uncomfortable surroundings means that they find it difficult to concentrate on homework and to sleep well, meaning they are less likely to do well enough at school to secure higher paid jobs and break the poverty cycle in future.
It is easy to see how the problem has been created. Since 2004, domestic fuel prices have roughly doubled. In the same period average household incomes have risen by just 20%. Ofgem predicts that over the next five years fuel prices could increase by as much as 60%. In contrast, with no prospect of an end to the recession, household incomes are likely to stagnate or even fall, pushing more and more families over the edge into fuel poverty.
Aren’t People Just Being Soft?
There is a school of thought that says that all this talk of “fuel poverty” is just another example of society becoming too “soft” and “needy”. Many people will remember the old days when they used to huddle together in several layers of clothing with rolled up jumpers against the doors as draught excluders. It is true that in modern society people tend to expect a greater level of comfort but is this such a bad thing? After all, once upon a time children used to have to work in mills risking their lives to feed their families. Society has thankfully moved on and no sensible person could argue that this anything other than a good thing.
People also tend to look at the past through coloured spectacles. They may remember the laughs and the singalongs on those cold winter nights but not the boy next door who contracted hypothermia or the old lady across the road who died from malnutrition because she couldn’t afford to eat properly after paying the coal man.
Can Anything Be Done About Fuel Poverty?
It is an unfortunate truth that for as long as there are capitalist economies there will be poverty and not everyone can be saved. There are however almost certainly more people in fuel poverty than need to be. Those struggling to pay their bills should be encouraged to shop around and compare tariffs rather than remaining loyal to one energy company. Also, they should enquire with their energy company whether they are able to offer them a cheaper tariff. The energy company is legally obliged to respond (though of course there may be no suitable cheaper tariff).
The Green Deal, due to launch in October, is another good opportunity for families of all incomes to reduce their fuel costs.
The scheme, which allows bill payers to install energy saving measures via a loan with no upfront costs comes with an assurance that the energy savings will be equal to or greater than the loan payments meaning poor families needn’t worry about taking on another debt they can’t afford to pay. There is even help available in the form of a full or partial grants toward the cost of the measures where the savings would not outweigh the repayments (for example because the home is “hard to treat” or because the bill payer cannot afford to run the heating for long enough to make sufficient savings).
Until the launch of the Green Deal, many energy companies offer free insulation to their customers. These offers will be withdrawn when the Green Deal is launched so enquiries should be made now without further delay.