Cold comfort

Posted on 12 December 2018

Vulnerable groups frozen out of initiatives to keep people warm; needs not numbers must drive support measures.

Dr Carolyn Snell, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, and Dr Mark Bevan, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Housing Policy, presented their final project research findings at an event in Westminster on the 11 December. It was attended by policy makers and practitioners working within the energy sector, and representatives from a range of charities working with disabled people and low income families.

One hundred and twenty-five households and practitioners were interviewed for the report ‘Policy Pathways to Justice in Energy Efficiency’, and condensed policy guide ‘Justice in Energy Efficiency: a focus on fuel poor disabled people and families’, which were released today.

The research team found that disabled people and low-income families with children often had higher energy demands within the home compared to other households. These increased demands are often associated with keeping warm, additional laundry needs, and in some cases using energy intensive equipment such as dehumidifiers and nebulisers. These circumstances lead to both increased household energy costs and higher risks associated with disconnection and a drop in household temperature.
Despite these needs, and the intention of policy to support households in this position, interviewees described accessing information and advice about energy and energy efficiency as a ‘minefield’, high levels of mistrust in the energy sector, and finding it difficult to know where to go and which sources to trust.

The report reveals the delivery of energy efficiency policy is variable and patchy, with vulnerable groups in greatest need not always eligible for support or receiving support which fails to reflect their additional needs. To improve access for vulnerable groups and to meet their needs more effectively, the report recommends there be a greater recognition of the needs of vulnerable groups, more consistent approaches across the UK and better cooperation with non-energy sectors.

Vulnerable groups, the authors argue, must be at the centre of the fuel poverty debate to ensure equal access to fuel poverty initiatives.

“Vulnerable groups are not adequately reflected in fuel poverty initiatives and these groups are suffering as a result,” said Dr Carolyn Snell, lead author and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of York.

The report finds that while some initiatives have been designed with vulnerable user needs in mind, these are often missing the mark.

“While there are schemes which have the intention to support vulnerable households, information and advice about energy is a minefield for vulnerable customers to navigate and those trying to access help are often left with an overwhelming sense of frustration and feeling of powerlessness,” said Dr Snell.

The report identifies five key barriers to accessing vital fuel poverty support mechanisms and suggests ways in which access and outcomes can be improved for all.

  • Current energy efficiency programme design leads to an emphasis on meeting targets at the lowest cost – ‘the numbers game’ – and there needs to be a greater emphasis on the positive impact of intervention to the household rather than a focus on least cost.
  • Households in need are not always eligible and the mechanisms for finding households needs to improve, including greater access to quality data, data matching and data sharing to enable households to be targeted more effectively.
  • Vulnerable customers often are not aware they are eligible for support and mechanisms for finding these people need to improve, together with work to improve the trustworthiness of the schemes promoted.
  • Current programmes focus on technical improvements to buildings rather than the needs of vulnerable groups and there needs to be shift to understanding the needs of these people and how they engage with energy.
  • The delivery of existing energy efficiency support programmes across the UK is patchy and Government should aim for consistent outcomes for households wherever they live.

The number of people experiencing fuel poverty is increasing by 210,000 to 2.55 million in 2018.

“Energy efficiency and fuel poverty policy have been in continual flux over recent years, and action needs to be taken to ensure that the needs of disabled people and families on low incomes are addressed,” said ACE Research Director Kelly Greer.

“The number of people experiencing fuel poverty is on the rise and rightly is a policy focus but we urge Government to put people and not just figures at the centre of fuel poverty policy targets to make a meaningful difference”.