Government ‘must do more to help vulnerable households this winter’
Poor insulation and high energy prices mean many people will be cold, says Age UK – and support is inadequate.
The government must take “urgent action” to protect older homeowners from the potentially deadly consequences of living in a cold home, a report given exclusively to The Observer claims.
One person – generally elderly – will die every seven minutes from cold-related diseases this winter, according to charity Age UK. “Only the government can change this and we call on it to act,” says director Caroline Abrahams ahead of the charity’s Campaign for Warm Homes, which kicks off today.
Over the past 60 years there have been 2.5m avoidable deaths among older people in England and Wales because of poorly insulated homes, according to the charity. The latest figures on excess winter deaths are due on Wednesday.
Yet schemes designed to help those suffering hardship are failing. The government scrapped its green deal energy efficiency programme in July. Launched in 2013, this was aimed at cutting energy bills for 14 million householders by offering them loans to install insulation and new boilers. However, poor take-up and alleged scams surrounding the scheme saw it branded a total flop – and there has been no replacement.
At present, the majority of free help or subsidies for vulnerable householders are through the energy companies obligation (ECO), set to end in March 2017. This requires the big energy firms to offer free cavity wall and/or loft insulation to those on pension credit or who claim various benefits. Local authorities also offer grants to local residents to help them pay for energy efficient measures.
The government has been leaving everyone to fend for themselves, but prices are too high.
Mark Todd, Energyhelpline
Mark Todd, director of website Energyhelpline, says: “The help on offer has reduced over the past few years with government cuts to not only energy efficiency schemes, but also to social care with fewer visits to people in their homes, and to benefits. The government has been leaving everyone to fend for themselves, energy prices are still too high, and the funding for these schemes too low.” Abrahams adds: “There is an urgent need for a workable replacement for the green deal and reform of ECOs.”
Meanwhile, vulnerable people continue to struggle without the support they need. John Flynn, 72 and from Hartlepool, lives alone in a four-bedroom terrace built in the 1860s. He tried several times to apply for solid wall insulation through the green deal. “A guy came, measured up, went away and I didn’t hear anything for ages,” he says. He finally found out the firm had gone bust, and looked into paying for it himself. “But I would have been expected to pay between £10,000 and £12,000 which I simply don’t have.” Without any help his bills have rocketed to £240 a month. “Last year I had shingles and was confined to the house for nine months. I had the heating on a lot to stay comfortable, which means my bills are now horrendous.”
Lesley and Harry Smith-Fenton, both 65, live in the Pennines and are unable to access grants to bring energy costs down. They live in a detached, stone-walled cottage built in the 1700s and without mains gas and electricity. They rely on a multi-fuel stove, a log-burning stove and a small generator and small wind turbine. “We’ve no cavity wall insulation, but none of the grants available are for people who are off-grid,” Lesley says. “We were offered free solar panels too, but as soon as they found out we were off-grid the offer disappeared.”
The couple fill the stove a few times a day. “We buy 10 bags of solid fuel which costs us £180 a month,” Harry says. “We also buy bundles of logs at £40 each. Every day you’re carting a load of logs and putting them in the shed. If you keep yourself warm you do feel a bit better, but once you’re immobile you feel the cold quickly. I have a lot of physical problems, but you have to keep going.”
The detrimental impact of cold homes doesn’t just affect pensioners, with those suffering disabilities or on a low income also at risk. Around 2.3 million UK households can’t afford to heat their home adequately, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Householders considered to be fuel poor are those with a combination of income below the poverty line, and a property with higher than typical energy costs. “Just under half of fuel poor households are in work, and 45% are families or lone parents,” says Richard Howard, head of environment and energy at thinktank Policy Exchange. “Fuel poverty has been made worse by rising energy prices, but also reflects the inefficiency of the nation’s housing stock, which is among the least energy efficient in Europe.”
Just under half of fuel poor households are in work, and 45% are families or lone parents.
Richard Howard, Policy Exchange
The Fuel Poverty (England) Regulations 2014 set targets to ensure as many fuel poor homes “as is reasonably practicable” achieve a minimum energy efficiency rating of band C by 2030. This includes some achieving a minimum rating of band E by 2020 and band D by 2025. But Age UK calls these targets “desperately unambitious… and will be too late, sadly, for many of today’s pensioners”, it concludes.
Charities are keen to help where possible. Turn2us.org.uk launched its No Cold Homes campaign last week, encouraging anyone struggling to pay energy bills to use its free online service to see if they are eligible for benefits, charitable grants and other support. “It is vital people use what help is on offer to slash bills,” Todd says. This may include the warm home discount, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments, asking suppliers for help, and switching to the cheapest supplier. Depending on where you live and whether you claim benefits you may be able to claim free home improvements.
You can contact the Energy Saving Trust on 0300 123 1234 to find out what options are available to help fund improvements. Scottish households seeking energy efficiency advice should contact Home Energy Scotland on 0808 808 2282. The Home Heat Helpline is on 0800 336699, and Age UK is on 0800 169 6565.
A range of initiatives to tackle fuel poverty are springing up around the UK.
South East London Community Energy is one of several energy cafes offering friendly, impartial advice . Elsewhere, charity National Energy Action runs a number of small projects to help people tackle fuel poverty. For example, the Warm Zones project works street by street with energy companies and local authorities.
At the Big Energy Saving Network, volunteer groups offer advice to consumers.
Main Photograph: Georgie Scott/Age UK
Other Photograph: Age UK