Tackling fuel poverty and excess winter deaths

It may seem like an odd time to be thinking about the winter and the severe weather we have experienced over the last couple of years, but this month saw the publication of an important report by Prof Sir Michael Marmot and his report team for Friends of the Earth, looking at the health impacts of cold homes and fuel poverty. The report concludes that excess winter deaths (above what would normally be expected) are almost three times higher in the coldest quarter of housing than in the warmest quarter. As a result, thousands of deaths could be prevented each year if British homes were made more energy efficient.

In considering the impact on older people in particular, the report concluded that “the effects of cold housing were evident in terms of higher mortality risk, physical health and mental health.” It goes on to say that improving the energy efficiency of the existing stock is a long-term, sustainable way of ensuring multiple gains, including environmental, health and social gains. Around 5,500 more deaths occur in the coldest quarter of houses every year than would happen if those houses were warm. In 2009-10, there were an estimated 25,400 excess winter deaths, of which 21.5% can be attributed to the coldest quarter of housing.

Perhaps most tellingly, Prof Marmot argues that Government policies, actions and financial support for interventions aimed at reducing fuel poverty and improving the energy efficiency of existing stock need to match its stated commitment to both the public health and climate change agendas. The Government’s current support and financial commitment to addressing the problem of poor thermal efficiency of housing remains inadequate, given the potential it has to improve the health and wellbeing of the population and help mitigate climate change.

If, as the report concludes, a renewed effort is needed to support programmes and policies which have shown to be successful in increasing energy efficiency of homes and improving the health of their residents, then much of this effort will have to come through the ‘Warm Front’ scheme. This supplied grants to help pay for heating and insulation improvements, but the programme was not well targeted and it effectively ran out of money, leading to its suspension in December 2010. It was reopened in April 2011, but is now targeted at a smaller range of households on certain income-related benefits and living in properties that are poorly insulated or have a broken heating system.

The government is meanwhile conducting an independent review into the definition of fuel poverty, which while it might help us identify those most in need, will do little to address the underlying problem of cold homes and how to treat them.

Here at Age UK, we aim to tackle the problem on a number of levels, not least by offering practical advice and support services to help older people live safer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. Find out more at Spread the Warmth.

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