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Map of the Week: Fuel poverty

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Mark Easton | 08:20 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009

For some of the estimated 3.5 million households in Britain who have good reason to fear they will not be able to afford to heat their homes this winter, there was a crumb of warming cheer in the chancellor's pre-Budget report yesterday.

Amid all the warnings of belt-tightening and tax hikes, Alistair Darling announced an extra £200m for "Warm Front", the government scheme which provides grants for people in England to make their homes "warmer, healthier and more energy efficient".

The cash announcement has only just come in time. There were warnings at the end of last month that Warm Front had effectively run out of money with the company that operates the scheme predicting long waits for help.

So the money will be welcomed. But this hand-to-mouth existence for an initiative which was recently accused by Parliament's Public Accounts Committee of "failing" to help those most in need is hardly cause for celebration.

Spiralling oil and gas prices have seen increasing numbers of people classified as living in fuel poverty and left government promises to eradicate the problem looking increasingly unrealistic.

Table showing estimates of fuel poverty in households in the UK

Last month energy minister David Kidney was asked about "progress towards meeting the target of ending fuel poverty in England". His telling reply was that the government remained "committed to doing all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that households do not live in fuel poverty". He talked of "a review" of fuel poverty policies - politics speak for "help"!

Yesterday the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) in England published this map showing how isolated communities are suffering from fuel poverty.

Map showing fuel poverty in rural England

Rural communities tend to endure much higher rates of fuel poverty than urban areas because of limited availability of mains gas which means greater use of generally more expensive alternatives. Variations in income, home energy efficiency and the climate also contribute.

crc_table.jpg

The CRC has identified three areas of in England − County Durham, East Riding and Shropshire - which they want to target in a fuel poverty pilot project. The regions were chosen "based on statistical data that shows high levels of fuel poverty, properties off the gas network and 'hard to heat' houses, all of which can result in people living in cold, damp homes".

Around 7,500 households will be asked about their "health and financial well-being, what type of fuel they use to heat their home and what concerns they have in relation to affordability or health issues". Solutions will then be proposed "on a 'house-by house' basis".

One hopes the "Hands Up" campaign does some good. But such initiatives are more about trying to push the issue up the political agenda than resolving fuel poverty itself.
A recent Consumer Focus report [680KB PDF] argued that if the government was still serious about eradicating the problem, the answer was retrofitting older houses to the energy efficiency standards we now demand in new homes.

"The research shows that the implementation of a major energy efficiency programme to 'fuel poverty proof' the homes of the fuel poor would eradicate the vast majority of fuel poverty in England."
 
"The programme would cost, on average, £6,800 per property if all properties in England are improved, or £8,800 if the programme only targets the fuel poor. The total cost of the programme would be £21bn, or £3bn pa based on the 2016 target date for fuel poverty elimination. Current annual expenditure on energy efficiency programmes aimed at the fuel poor is estimated at £910m. The proposed retrofit programme would therefore require a three fold increase in expenditure."

Now is probably not the time to be asking government to spend an extra £3bn a year. But we know what happens in a cold winter if people cannot afford to heat their homes: thousands of people die. Last winter you may remember, saw the highest winter deaths figures in almost 10 years. The Office for National Statistics revealed last month that there were an extra 36,700 deaths in England and Wales from December 2008 to March 2009, compared with the average for non-winter periods.

Yesterday's bonus for "Warm Front" may prove to be cold comfort.

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