“I’m sitting here in my pyjamas and dressing gown with thick socks and a hat on,” says Lea Shaw on a dark January evening when she speaks to Novara Media on the phone. “The other day it was so cold I had to spend the whole day in bed because I couldn’t afford to put the heating on.”
Like people in over 4m UK households, Lea, a 59 year-old woman from Worthing, is living in fuel poverty. Every winter – come snow, storms and sub-zero temperatures – low-income individuals and families already struggling with basic living expenses are faced with the additional cost of heating their homes. In many cases, people are forced to live in a near-constant state of cold.
“My main worries are whether or not I’ve got enough milk and bread. It’s a dreadful way to live at any time of year, but particularly right now, as I can’t even afford to keep the house warm,” she says. “The only thing keeping me going is that I’m not on the street like some poor souls tonight.”
A quiet crisis.
A fuel-poor household used to be defined as one which spends more than 10% of its income on fuel to maintain an adequate standard of warmth. Today, a person is regarded as living in fuel poverty if they are “a member of a household living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost.
In the worst cases, fuel poverty can be fatal. Last winter, 11,000 people died from cold-related illnesses or from freezing in their homes. In the winter of 2012/13, one person in England and Wales was dying of cold every six minutes.
Fuel poverty affects people in a number of ways. “We see people developing persistent respiratory illnesses due to being exposed to fuel poverty because it causes damp and mould in your home,” explains Sam Hayward, a campaigner at Fuel Poverty Action. “Recently one of my colleagues visited the family of a disabled child whose house is so cold she’s been rushed to hospital three times in the past two months because her respiratory illnesses have gotten so bad.”
Then there are the psychological aspects of fuel poverty. For many, and particularly for pensioners and disabled people who are homebound, living in cold conditions means having no place where they feel safe and secure. As a study by Shelter found, children living in cold homes are more likely to suffer from stress, anxiety and depression.
For Lea, disability, isolation and fuel poverty reinforce one another. “When I was able to work, I was just about able to keep on top of my bills. But since my spinal injuries started, it’s been impossible to work,” she says. “Now I can’t afford to heat my home, which only makes my respiratory problems worse.”
“I do try to leave the house, but when you’ve got no money, there’s nowhere to go. You can’t afford to do any of the things other people do – that just isn’t your world anymore.”
The tariffs are too damn high.
Over the past few decades energy prices have risen dramatically, with the ‘big six’ energy suppliers monopolising the market, behaving like a cartel and inching their prices up year on year. Between 2006 and 2016 the average standard variable tariff rose from £472 to £1,200 a year.
Despite the relative lack of competition in the sector, the energy oligopoly is sustained by the successive governments’ notional commitment to a free market, with government regulators reluctant to curb cartel-like behaviour.
This neoliberal mindset is as ubiquitous as it is harmful. “We see it everywhere – in construction, with PFI and Carillion,” says Hayward. “It’s really unjust in the energy sector because being fuel insecure is so horrible. The people we talk to are really suffering.”
But high energy tariffs are only part of the problem. The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe, and with it some of poorest housing insulation – yet addressing the problem isn’t a government priority. “It’s not glamorous to install insulation in housing, so it’s something governments don’t really pursue, despite the fact that it’s the cheapest and easiest way to both reduce energy consumption and prevent fuel poverty,” Hayward explains.
For some households the problem of poor insulation has become even worse in the last year. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, which was widely blamed on dangerous cladding, 26 buildings across the UK have had their cladding and insulation removed. Of these 26, only three have had full replacements installed, leaving hundreds of households more exposed to the winter weather.
Taking back power.
What are the alternatives? Along with generous public investment in energy efficiency and insulation, groups such as Fuel Poverty Action are campaigning for locally-sourced, publicly-run renewable energy companies that are accountable to communities and provide cheaper power.
“If we had publicly-run energy companies, our companies would be run for us, and any profits that were generated by that company would be fed back into our own energy systems,” says Hayward.
One key factor is that with a centralised energy structure, network maintenance costs are huge. “There was an analysis done by the Daily Telegraph which showed that 29% of our entire energy bill goes on network maintenance costs,” he continues. “A decentralised energy infrastructure would mean that network maintenance costs would be massively reduced.”
With more and more people living in circumstances like Lea, it’s clear our energy is too important to be controlled by private interests. For Hayward, the answer is simple: “We need, both figuratively and literally, to take back power.”
Information about Fuel Poverty Action and how to support their work can be found on their website.