McKenzie, Shannon, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health
With energy prices once again on the rise, a pro-active approach to fuel poverty is needed.
Shannon McKenzie hears from two local authorities who are working hard to identify vulnerable households.
With the well-publicised increases in gas and electricity rates by some of the nation's biggest energy providers, fuel poverty is once again hitting the headlines. Earlier this year, British Gas announced it was hiking bills by 15 per cent, and its lead was quickly followed with Npower, EDF Energy, Scottish Power and E.ON (formerly Powergen). The rises have rung alarm bells at the highest levels - in this year's budget Chancellor Alistair Darling unveiled measures to control tariffs paid by customers on pre-payment meters. However, consumer group Energywatch notes that the increases are still likely to push the number of UK households in fuel poverty to record levels.
Fuel poverty is defined as when a household spends more than one-tenth of its income on utility bills. According to Energywatch, there are 4.4 million households living in fuel poverty in the UK, and 3 million of those are in England alone. The issue is not a new one, and the government has established various schemes and incentives to encourage public services to recognise and tackle it. Most recently, it included 'tackling fuel poverty' as a specific objective in its new National Indicator (Nl) set. The Nl set replaced the Best Value Performance Indicators at the beginning of April, and is the new standard against which local authorities will be judged. Fuel poverty makes its appearance as NI 187.
Unsurprisingly, poor quality housing is a major factor in fuel poverty. Homes that are inadequately insulated or ventilated will inevitably cost more to heat and it is often the poorest households that end up living in such locations. Fortunately there are various government grants and funding pools available to help bring such homes up to scratch. Identifying such homes, however, is not always a straightforward matter and a proactive approach is definitely needed.
Wakefield Metropolitan District Council is one local authority that has taken such an approach. In March 2006 it launched the hot Spots scheme, a fuel poverty referral initiative which sees several local agencies working together to ensure vulnerable people receive the services they need. The scheme brings together the local authority, the Wakefield District PCT, the Wakefield Fire Service and the local Energy Advice Centre (EAC). Workers employed by these services are issued with specially designed hot Spot cards: when they make home visits, they are asked to observe the environment and ask questions where appropriate. …