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‘Heating or Eating’ Shouldn’t Be a Choice

The extortionate cost of energy bills will see millions going without heating in Britain this winter – a reminder of the avoidable scandal of fuel poverty.

Home insulations dropped by 95% between 2012 and 2019, despite the dire need. Credit: Getty Images

For six months of the year, Alex’s* house is almost uninhabitable. To survive he has to wear a full winter coat inside. As we talk over the phone, he describes the house being so cold that he can see every breath forming a cloud in front of his face.

‘It makes you feel like you’re in a survival situation every single day,’ he tells me. ‘My limited income means I’ve got a choice between heating or eating. if I wear enough clothes I can survive without heating… And you can’t survive without food, so needs must.’

The veteran is one of countless people across the country facing fuel poverty. At present, at least three million households are already unable to pay their energy bills, and estimates from the summer predict that that number will rise by almost 400,000 as we head into what’s expected to be the coldest winter in a decade. A study in 2018 found that fuel poverty was causing 3,000 deaths a year.

Alex spent his career in the military until his contract came to an end two years ago. ‘I’ve really struggled to find full employment since then,’ he explains, ‘and despite my best efforts I’m now unemployed and have been for some time.’ On leaving he began claiming an immediate pension, but his rate has left him making untold sacrifices—from cutting out his heating to relying on food banks—just to get by.

The reasons behind the rising impact of fuel poverty have filled headlines for weeks. As a sharp rise in the wholesale price of gas causes a number of energy companies to collapse, the government has decided to increase the cap on the most widely used energy tariffs. One report from National Energy Action, a fuel poverty charity, found that the average domestic energy bill has already risen by £230 since last winter. Worsening shortages meaning prices could rise by a further £467 next year, meaning the cost of heating the average home will have doubled since last winter.

But this crisis has been building for years. For one, the UK has some of the oldest and leakiest housing stock in Europe, and that lack of quality insulation means many spend huge sums to keep their homes warm. One estimate suggested that poor insulation means around £1 in every £4 currently spent heating UK homes is wasted; then add to that other inefficiencies in the heating of the home, like electric heaters or poorly fitted windows.

Beyond fluctuations in supply or insulation, the core cause of fuel poverty is money. Simply put, the more people struggling to get by, the harder it will be to afford heating in your home. Mix already high poverty levels—even before the pandemic, some 14 million people lived in poverty, 56% of whom were in work—with a £20 a week cut to Universal Credit hitting the nearly six million people, and a rising cost of living, and you can see why more people are now facing the same dilemma as Alex.

Despite many of those problems existing for years, little has been done. ‘I think people in that situation don’t have a lot of power,’ explains Ruth London, of campaign group Fuel Poverty Action. ‘And they are a long way from Westminster.’

In another life, Michael was a lawyer. But two years ago, after a battle with alcohol addiction and mental health issues, he found himself unable to work and spending days in a sleeping bag in his Glasgow flat because he couldn’t afford the heating bills.

‘Every day was a long day,’ he tells me. ‘And if I hadn’t been able to get help my life would have been a lot worse.’ After an intervention from a social enterprise called the Wise Group, he was able secure fuel vouchers and now finds himself in a better position than he was then.

But he was far from an exception in Glasgow. As we talk, he tells me about friends and neighbours who have suffered with fuel poverty: those he’s tried to help, those who were too apprehensive to get help from charities, and even those who have died in their damp and freezing flats.

Research from the Wise Group recently found an 185 percent rise in demand for their energy support services, while more than 25 percent of those seeking help from the group had rationed or self-disconnected their heating to keep their heads above water. Much of the report focused on Glasgow, where the problem was particularly acute. In a city where over 34 percent of children were living in poverty as of last year, it should be no surprise that fuel poverty is having a dire impact on its most-in-need.

‘That families this time of year are having to sit in the darkness or survive the freezing cold because of the unaffordability of basic necessities is truly shameful in a country as rich as ours,’ says Paul Sweeney, a Labour MSP for Glasgow. ‘And there’s a wider impact on health from those cold, damp conditions, mental health, more long-term costs for the NHS, worse educational opportunities as children lose concentration skills…  And it’s only going to get worse.

‘Surely it should be in everyone’s interest for people to be fulfilling their best potential to have their home that’s warm, and lit, and where people have enough nutrition on a daily basis to live a life where they can perform to their best and their children have the best chance to succeed in school?’

These problems are only made worse by the fact that there’s nothing more expensive than being poor—and fuel poverty may just be one of the most extreme examples.

Take electric heating, which is disproportionately found in the poorest households, and often costs four times as much as gas heating. Despite being used in roughly eight percent of homes, the Wise Group’s research found that it accounted for 54 percent of those in fuel poverty surveyed.  Then there’s insulation. While a high factor in the cost of heating a home, if you’re poor, it’s harder to pay the upfront cost of insulation—even if it allows for long-term savings. Using prepayment meters, often forced by energy companies on households they think will struggle to pay monthly bills, has also been found to be far more costly than direct debit.

But what often gets forgotten in articles documenting the impact of these problems is that they aren’t unsolvable. It’s a question of political will. ‘The fact is that people in Scandinavia do not suffer from cold homes the way people in Britain do, and it’s not warmer there,’ says Ruth. ‘The idea that there isn’t money is such a pervasive con.’

As just one example, she highlights the recently culled green homes grant. Announced during the early stages of the pandemic, it managed to insulate just 5,800 of a target 60,000 homes due to what a select committee called ‘botched’ implementation and ‘disastrous’ administration, before being summarily cancelled. Ruth says its future budget has yet to be allocated to other schemes.

And there are countless ways that money could be used. Removing prepayment meters, which disproportionately charge more to the poorest homes, is one solution, as is properly funding a revolution in insulation—home insulations actually dropped by 95% between 2012 and 2019, despite the dire need.

There are some much wider solutions, too. For one, many campaigners have asked why heating isn’t treated as a right—with much more support from government to make sure people are never in a situation where they’re left choosing between eating and heating.

In Sweden, for example, heat is included in rent, with a legal minimum amount of heat produced, creating an incentive for homeowners and landlords to invest more in energy efficiency. Unsurprisingly, the country, despite its extreme weather, has a far lower fuel poverty rate.

On top of that, there is the issue of the privatisation of energy companies in the UK: Sweeney highlights how Scotland’s energy system was cheaper pre-privatisation than it has been in the decades since. And, of course, there’s the straightforward need to increase wages and benefits to ensure normal people have enough money in their pocket to keep the heating on.

But for those experiencing fuel poverty, those solutions often feel out of reach. As a pervasive issue that has plagued the UK for years, if not decades, many felt like their suffering had been ignored or simply accepted in Westminster.

‘The government doesn’t seem to have any interest in how this all affects ordinary people,’ Alex tells me. ‘It feels like a betrayal.’