30 Nov 2023

Housing must continue to advocate for solutions to end fuel poverty

Today is Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, where the housing, energy and health sectors come together to highlight the causes and consequences of fuel poverty and cold homes. Last week, the Chancellor could have given these sectors – and the thousands of people they support – a reason to be more positive about the months ahead. Instead, the Autumn Statement offered precious little to the millions of people struggling to keep their homes warm, despite the subsequent news that energy prices will start creeping up again from January.

Given differences in how it is measured, it is sometimes difficult to say with certainty how many people fuel poverty affects. However, the evidence we do have suggests that this winter could be even harder than the last one. National Energy Action estimates that 6.5 million UK households will be in fuel poverty from January, but the government’s own projections suggest as many as 12 million households in England – more or less half – can’t currently keep their homes warm at a reasonable cost.

Meanwhile, data from Switchee has highlighted that one in four households in social housing endured dangerously low temperatures last winter, and there are no signs that the situation is improving. Despite wholesale prices falling slightly this year, energy bills are still approximately double what they were before the pandemic – and set to stay this way for the rest of the decade.

This, combined with the Chancellor’s decision not to introduce financial support of the kind that was provided last winter, means that prices this winter will be higher for many than 12 months ago. In fact, analysis from the Resolution Foundation shows that over 40 per cent the poorest households will face higher energy bills this winter than last. The now chronic unaffordability of energy has also ensured that energy debt has continued to soar, with an estimated 6.4 million (12 per cent) of UK adults behind on their bills – up by 824,000 since April 2023.

The situation is increasingly dire, with little end in sight.

In this context, CIH had joined with the End Fuel Poverty Coalition and many other organisations to ask for more support to be provided with energy in the Autumn Statement. We hoped to see the announcement of further financial support for those who most need it, as well as the introduction of a ‘Help to Repay’ scheme to accelerate the repayment of energy debt. We also hoped to see the announcement of future waves of funding for government energy efficiency and decarbonisation schemes, including the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund.

Instead, scanning the lines of the Chancellor’s speech and the swathe of accompanying documents, we find almost no policies or announcements that will help people to stay warm this winter. Of course, the uprating of benefits in line with September’s inflation, the unfreezing of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, and the increase in the National Minimum Wage are all welcome, as was the prior announcement of Wave 2.2. of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund in October.

However, none of these initiatives do anything to provide immediate relief to people struggling with their energy bills, switching off their fridges and freezers because they can’t afford electricity. The cut to National Insurance Contributions (NIC) from 6 January will make a small difference, but it is unlikely to cover a fuel poverty gap that means people in the least efficient homes need over £800 per year extra to be able to keep their homes warm.

Overall, we are no further along the path to eradicating fuel poverty than we were before the Autumn Statement. Now, we look ahead to a winter where fuel poverty will continue to be a significant public health issue.

Among the statistics and granular details of the Autumn Statement, it is sometimes easy to forget what fuel poverty really means. Every household in fuel poverty is a household more vulnerable to mental ill-health, more susceptible to develop cardiovascular or respiratory ailments, and more likely to experience stigmatisation and embarrassment. In the words of the towering poverty researcher Peter Townsend, fuel poverty also means being excluded from the ordinary living patterns, customs, and activities of a civilised society – the things we can sometimes take for granted, like cooking a hot meal or washing the dishes.

For these reasons, CIH will continue to advocate for policies that reduce fuel poverty and keep people healthy at home. We need a social energy tariff, we need action on energy debt, and we desperately need more action to improve the energy efficiency of domestic homes. Just as importantly, we need to continue to come together as a housing sector to tell government that this must be the last winter where millions can’t keep warm at home.

Written by Matthew Scott

Matthew is a policy and practice officer who leads our work on asset management, specifically on building safety, repairs and maintenance and the domestic transition to Net Zero in social housing. He holds a PhD from Newcastle University and has previously held several research and policy roles in the academic and third sectors.