Ending fuel poverty needs a new direction

Ruth London, Fuel Poverty Action

The idea of “fuel poverty” has been valuable in highlighting the ill health, worsened life chances, and sheer miserable suffering that come from living in a cold – often damp and mouldy – home.  Yet separating out “fuel poverty” can also be misleading.  Poverty is indivisible. The "kettle packs" in food banks, for people who cannot afford to heat the food they’re given, are proof of that. Fuel Poverty Action note in our chapter in The Poverty of Austerity:

Public outrage at being deprived of heat, or going hungry to pay the bills, runs deep in the UK.  A change in government policies, at no net cost, could save or transform lives.  Instead, austerity governments since 2010 have overseen the expansion of low waged, insecure employment and benefit cuts, and have cut the libraries and day centres where people go to keep warm and the advice centres and legal aid which defended their entitlements.  They have legislated to sell off social housing in favour of private landlords, and have organised energy policy around profit instead of survival.

The strength of this book is that it brings together the facts and figures on all of this and more, showing how all sorts of government policies, from housing to health, from asylum to workfare, contribute to the fact that every winter thousands die in this wealthy country because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

In the midst of this disaster area, Theresa May has expressed outrage at the level of energy prices for the majority of customers, promising to right this injustice as a centrepiece of her claim to be helping the “just about managing”.  She is responding to a groundswell.  Every year pensioners, disabled people, and other fellow-sufferers protest about the “excess winter deaths”, sometimes occupying public buildings to keep warm.  Uncontrolled price rises, the profits of the big suppliers and the bonuses of their CEOs have long been a national scandal.  So you might have expected enthusiasm for the cap on energy prices announced in the Conservative manifesto.

Instead, we have seen widespread scepticism.  People cannot forget that since this measure was first flagged up last autumn nothing has been done, prices have soared, and the powerful energy lobby has condemned the idea, as have many Tories on the grounds that it interferes with the Market.  If there were to be a cap, the signs are that it would be a relative one, not absolute, and could do as much to eliminate the lowest prices as it would to mitigate the worst ones.  

The government has introduced a cap on prepayment meter prices, which provides some limited protection against the way people with the lowest incomes and the worst or most insecure housing are often forced to pay more, in advance, for their fuel. However, the cap still leaves these customers paying extra compared to their neighbours – and subject being “self-disconnected”, left cold and in the dark when the money runs out, with no way of  keeping medicines cool and no way of charging a phone.

Now, in a surprise move, the Conservative manifesto commits to means-testing the life-saving Winter Fuel Allowance, which pays pensioners, automatically, £100 - £300.  Fuel benefits should, they say, be ‘targeted’ at the worst off, on the grounds that money for pensioners is at the expense of the working-age generation.  Everything now is to be ‘targeted’.  Even the definition of “fuel poverty” has been changed, in England, to include only those with above-average fuel costs, to facilitate targeting, in the process wiping hundreds of thousands of households out of the definition.  It is, however, common knowledge that whenever people must apply and pass a means test for a benefit, many who need it fail to claim it, while the costs of gate-keeping and identifying ‘people in real need’ consume a good part of any saving.  If, instead, the bills came down for everyone, there would be no need for such a subsidy.  

The government has cut to shreds, or entirely eliminated, ways of moving towards energy efficiency and renewable energy, both of which could dramatically bring down bills, and at the same time save on carbon emissions.  In The Violence of Austerity, we write:

. . . state programmes like the popular Warm Front which provided insulation to around 2.3 million homes,  were replaced by a money-lending scheme, the Green Deal, which never got off the ground. New, much smaller schemes to reduce the demand for energy have been handed over to the firms that sell energy . . . Tighter energy efficiency requirements for new-build homes were scrapped in 2015. Yet, with the new insulation schemes paid for by a charge passed on to customers,  ‘green measures’ are blamed for high bills.   

Meanwhile the cost of renewable energy is plummeting.  The UK has some of the best access to wind, waves and tide of any country in the world, and a strong renewable industry was developing, when the government – in the name of cutting costs to ‘hard-working families’ – pulled the rug out from beneath it with  £500-600 million of cuts. David Cameron called it ‘green crap’.

Existing policies on energy do not have public support.  A majority want it publicly owned– a preference that is giving birth to new non-profit municipal energy suppliers. Government polling in 2016 showed that 19 percent supported fracking – which is now set to be forced on communities round the UK despite universal acknowledgment that it will not bring down bills.

This is being adamantly  – and effectively -- opposed.  In contrast, renewable power was supported by 81% of the public, and opposed by 4%; despite the cuts, people are finding ways to take part in the global shift to this new power.  Round the country, tenants and residents are also starting to take on suppliers of District Heating – new communal heating systems which should bring down bills and carbon emissions but which are unregulated and uncontrolled, leaving many people worse off than before. The lethal priorities of austerity and profit are being challenged every day.  

Ruth London helped found Fuel Poverty Action in 2011 which campaigns for warm, well-insulated homes and affordable energy, under the control of people and communities, not private companies. Fuel Poverty Action welcomes new members.

The Violence of Austerity, edited by Vickie Cooper and Davie Whyte, is published by Pluto Press.


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