Framing fuel poverty for a modern complex world.

Currently the four nations of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are at various stages of re-drafting and implementing policies to re-purpose tackling fuel poverty. This is following on from their collective failure to tackle it via policies committed to in the early 2000’s. As they all struggle to grasp that silver bullet which will crack the ‘wicked problem’ of fuel poverty is it worth reflecting on just what is fuel poverty?

The framing of fuel poverty as a health crisis helps to give the issue its proper place in our modern society, access to heat is a critical factor in many aspects of a good and productive life for those living in the UK. However, we will at some point need to recognise that the use of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) as our metric to determine success in “fuel poverty” programmes is somewhat flawed. Fuel poverty occurs when for whatever reason folk can’t have equal access to the range of amenities that we require energy to provide. The consequence of which is some kind of rationing or in some cases just going without. Dr Brenda Boardman had this right over 30 years ago in her book “Fuel poverty: from cold homes to affordable warmth”. The complex problem that we describe as "fuel poverty" is not just an issue about the access to heat. This use of energy is clearly important in a country which spends a significant amount of the year being cold and damp, particularly in Scotland!

The 10th anniversary of the untimely passing of a great champion of the fuel poverty campaign Prof John Chesshire was last Tuesday (10th September). Thinking about John reminded me of an intense and quite determined discussion we had over lunch at the then Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes (EEPfH) annual conference 2009 at the QEII centre in London. We reflected on the common threads across all the work that was being done at that time to tackle fuel poverty, all the effective “affordable warmth” programmes and such like. John, ever the economist and planner, over the coffee part of the lunch remarked, “Dealing with how people heat their homes is really the easy part and Government policies will push in this direction because it makes sense in many other areas of public policy. However, the real challenge will be how we understand non-heating energy needs and how society resolves to ensure that those on low incomes are not disadvantaged for this.” It is a slight paraphrase, but the gist of what he dropped before cantering out the door for his ubiquitous ciggie before the start of the next session is there.

The issue being missed by EPCs and which suffers from the cognitive dissonance of successive policy makers is that the apparent complexity we see around fuel poverty emerges from the reality that people use energy for many amenities at home, what we might refer to as this “non-heating” energy. Some of which are important for health and some of which may appear frivolous to many but which have an inherent value that both maintains and grows our healthy human endeavours. We need to drive fuel poverty policy away from the idea that fixing fuel poverty is getting people just over the existence line; now you can heat your home, now you are not my problem.

It is to this “non-heating” purpose of energy that we will need to focus our minds on in the future. In some ways John was ahead of the game, the heating element of fuel poverty will be tackled with climate change policies, and with the “Climate Emergency” at some significant accelerated pace. However, therein lies the complexity of public policy and one that has already been noted by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), net zero or just plain zero carbon electricity is NOT free. Achieving ambitious climate change targets will have a disproportionate impact on low income households. Your home may well be “energy efficient” by the methodology of the EPC, but this only assesses the energy used for lighting, space and water heating. The rest of your necessary energy amenities are not included and could be costing you, just not costing the earth any more in the zero carbon future energy network.

Scott Restrick
19 September 2019