Well, that’s not a headline you expected to read. But that is the official story, as charted in the 2012 Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics, published this week (17 May).
The number of households in fuel poverty in England was 4m in 2009: in this latest report covering the year 2010, the numbers had fallen to 3.5m. This seems counter-intuitive as our memory is of cold, hard winters and rising energy prices, but some interesting features emerge about 2010 from the report.
First, it was a cold year, with January, February and December being months with average temperatures well below the norm for the last five years. Household energy consumption rose by about 10%. But energy prices were falling for the first time since 2000 – and of course have increased sharply again since 2010.
Second, incomes for most of the population increased by 2-3%, but for the poorest quintile the increase was 4%. This group includes a large proportion of the fuel poor, and the combination of better incomes and lower energy prices obviously feeds into the fuel poverty calculations.
Third, there was a startling improvement in the energy efficiency of our housing stock. Households with gas fired condensing boilers grew from 24% to 32%, and this more energy efficient equipment contributes to the story of an unusual year. The proportion of households in the upper four bands (out of seven) on the scale measuring energy efficiency rose from 52% to 57%. Since then, the Warm Front programme has been drastically scaled down, reducing that option for a lot of fuel poor households.
In fairness, ministers are not presenting these figures as a policy triumph. Their projections for 2011 and 2012 see fuel poverty numbers resuming their upward rise. The task of eradicating the scourge of fuel poverty (with its associated misery, illness and even death) remains a daunting one, and older households are very much in the front line. This time next year, with the next Annual Report, we will probably be delving into the thesaurus to find synonyms for depressing, lamentable or disgraceful.