Professor John Hills is possibly the leading contemporary academic expert on poverty and inequality in Britain today. He follows in the distinguished footsteps of Tawney, Titmus and Peter Thompson. He accepted the challenge to lead the independent review into fuel poverty because, as he modestly says,
he was intrigued by the subject and wanted to understand it better.
The first part of his brief was “to consider fuel poverty from first principles: to determine the nature of the issues at its core, including the extent to which fuel poverty is distinct from poverty, and the detriment it causes”. Long term fuel poverty campaigners were fearful that by making this the question, Government ministers wanted to find an excuse to airbrush fuel poverty off the agenda and get off the hook of confronting the rapidly escalating numbers of households dropping into fuel poverty over the last five or six years. Their fears are confounded in Hills’ Foreword to his report: “That fuel poverty remains a serious problem is clear from the evidence we review”, he states.
His report goes on to observe that households in or on the margins of poverty face costs stacking up an aggregate to £1.1bn more than typical households to keep warm, that those on low incomes cannot afford the investment to make their houses energy efficient – which is a key issue in the climate change and carbon reduction agenda, and crucially that living in cold homes has a series of effects on illness and mental health. That last is the lead item on his chapter on the Impacts of Fuel Poverty.
For the rest of this typically thorough and comprehensive review (over 150 pages), the Hills team have looked at different ways of defining fuel poverty. The current definition, which John Hills accepts, is based on the 2000 Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act, which states that “a person is to be regarded as living in fuel poverty if he is a member of a household living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at a reasonable cost”. But if the devil is in the detail, this leads to further issues about defining low income, adequate warmth, and reasonable cost, and most of this Interim Report is probing around this area.
Hills props up several different methodologies to measure fuel poverty, all of which come up with big numbers, and some are higher and some lower than the current statistical measurements indicate.
Hills will produce his final report in January, when he will put some recommendations forward, as well as analysing the impact of various policy prescriptions for the growing number of households in fuel poverty.