Energy is top of the news bulletins at the moment with cold weather leading to supply difficulties for people who don’t have access to mains gas and electricity supplies. The Government’s immediate response has been heavily scrutinised but their longer-term strategy for energy use should perhaps receive more attention than it has. The Energy Bill, published in the House of Lords in mid-December, lays out the Government’s approach for the future.
The Energy Bill, which will give effect to the Green Deal, signals a welcome step change in the government’s approach to improvement of housing stock, much of which is characterised by inadequate insulation and inefficient heating systems. A concerted programme of home improvement work is essential if we are to improve energy efficiency in homes and reduce our use of fuel. The Green Deal will include a financial plan that lets householders pay for energy saving measures in instalments through their energy bills.
The shape and structure of the Green Deal appears to make good sense to the ‘average’ householder – the sort with reasonable incomes, a good understanding of loans and debt, a clear grasp of form-filling and paper trails, and a confident approach to builders and building work disrupting their homes. But, the Government must consider other types of households. One third of households are headed by a retired person, with half of them living alone, and, for many people, energy expenditure represents a major part of their outgoings. As many as 3.5 million pensioner households live in fuel poverty, spending more than 10% of their incomes on fuel bills. Changes to their energy bills and disruption to their living arrangements could represent major barriers to engaging with the Green Deal home improvements.
Here at Age UK, we’re concerned that the Energy Bill does not give clear answers as to how well the Green Deal will work for these households. I hope that during the passage of the Bill, ministers will lay out how vulnerable older people will be able to share in the benefits of the scheme and be supported to do so. This is doubly important because the only publicly-funded programme assisting people in fuel poverty, Warm Front, is being shrunk, and will disappear entirely when the Green Deal is introduced.
We don’t believe that Warm Front had all the answers. Indeed, many older people contacted us with stories of how unaffordable and inaccessible they found the scheme. However, it is important that the Government does not ignore fuel poverty reduction as part of their long term planning for the nation’s energy needs. We are doing our bit; the Spread the Warmth campaign shows that we are determined to tackle the problems winter brings helping people to stay warm during winter, cut energy bills and support friends and neighbours who might be living alone.
The Government have set a legally-binding target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016 in England. We want to know how the Government are going to achieve this target so that it is clear they are not giving a permanent cold shoulder to those living in fuel poverty.