Fuel Poverty: Leaving the Poor to Freeze

This year, Britain experienced its coldest winter in over 30 years, and as temperatures dropped below -20ºC in some parts of the UK, thousands of people suffered the effects of one of society’s gravest ills: fuel poverty.

According to official definitions, “a household is said to be in fuel poverty if it needs to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to maintain an adequate level of warmth”; current figures estimate that there are approximately 4.6 million “fuel poor” households in the UK. The severity of the problem is such that the Office for National Statistics calculated that there were 36,700 deaths in the winter of 2008/09 due to the cold weather.

Unsurprisingly, fuel poverty is a problem that primarily affects vulnerable, low-income households. Studies show that in the worst cases, such as pensioners on income support, households spend approximately 19% of their income on heating bills, whilst the elderly, unemployed, and disabled are disproportionately affected by cold weather and heating bills, since they are more likely to be at home for longer periods of the day.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) states that the main factors that contribute towards fuel poverty are: high energy prices, low household income, and poorly insulated and heated homes. In a further display of honesty, DECC also points out that, “energy bills increased, on average, by 16% every year between 2004 and 2008”; meanwhile, surveys show that the average household energy bill is over £1,000 per year.

DECC, however, has no solution to the problem of energy prices, as they, and the New Labour government (and the Tories), have fully embraced the liberalisation and privatisation of the energy industry, which has led to a cartel of energy companies that set arbitrarily high prices. (See issue 181)

In terms of the problems of low household income, the government is again unable to provide an effective solution, providing nothing but meagre subsidies in the shape of the winter fuel payment and the cold weather payment. The charities Age Concern and Help the Aged, in relation to these subsidies, said that, “these one-off payments haven't kept pace with the steep increase to energy bills over the last few years and are only a sticking plaster to the entrenched problem of fuel poverty...The winter fuel payment no longer pays very much of a normal energy bill, the insulation and draft proofing programmes are not working very broadly and the consequences are going to be, more people die, more people are going to get ill, putting pressure on the NHS, and more people are going to feel miserable”.

Heating accounts for over 50% of energy use in homes, mainly due to poor building regulations. Meanwhile, social housing is especially prone to inadequate insulation and inefficient heating systems. The government’s new boiler scrappage scheme attempts to solve the latter problem by providing a subsidy of £400 towards a new, efficient boiler, but this is of little help to most people when the total cost of installation is between £2,000-3,000. Various grants are available for improving the insulation of a home, but these are only available to homeowners and landlords, not tenants. Many energy companies provide investment towards improving social housing, but in most cases this has merely resulted in low-income tenants being burdened with even greater energy bills, due to the move of ownership of social housing, which began under Thatcher, from local councils to private housing associations and landlords.

SERA, an environmental campaign that is affiliated to the Labour Party, correctly states that, “we must recognise that the measures to tackle this issue [of fuel poverty] - fuel payments, subsidies, social tariffs, windfall taxes - will not deal with the long-term root causes of these problems”; SERA, however, then goes on to advocate the use of “markets” to solve the problem.

What we must recognize, is that the real long-term root cause of fuel poverty is capitalism; a system that operates only for profit, not for people. Any real solution to fuel poverty cannot place its faith in privatised energy companies, which have done nothing but push up prices for everyone. Meanwhile, the construction industry cannot be allowed to go on building poorly insulated, badly heated homes.

The only solution is a socialist plan, involving the nationalisation of the energy and construction industries, under the democratic control of the workers. Such a plan, involving the insulation of existing homes, the construction of new, affordable, energy-efficient houses, and the expansion of renewable energy supplies, would not only eliminate fuel poverty, but also create jobs and combat the ever increasing threat of climate change.