It may be measured in baby steps, but at last the Department of Health (DH) is acknowledging the importance of cold homes, and living in fuel poverty, to the health debate.
Age UK’s lobbying and campaigning on fuel poverty issues is strongly grounded on the health implications – the ill-health arising from not keeping adequately warm, measured both in terms of human suffering and costs to the NHS – so this engagement by the DH is a significant advance. Two short reports from Age UK have looked at recent public health initiatives to assess their impact.
One is concerned with the Warm Homes Healthy People programme. This was announced as a ‘one-off’ in 2011, then repeated in 2012.
It was a £20m prize pot to which local authorities were invited to bid, provided their proposals were to address ‘winter pressures’, and provided they were doing so in partnership with the local voluntary and community groups.
It stimulated a remarkable range of varied activities, from clearing snow and going shopping in adverse weather, to providing hot meals and issuing ‘winter survival packs’, to checking electric blankets and checking benefit entitlements.
It drove a wave of local, community activity, and local Age UK partners were substantially involved. This report looks at their experience of the project, and it is overwhelmingly supportive.
The other reportexplores the first wave of Health and Wellbeing Strategy reports, published as the new architecture of public health was preparing to go live in April this year.
The Government’s Public Health Outcomes Framework offers the local Health and Wellbeing Boards a range of issues to work on, of which fuel poverty is one, but (in the spirit of the Coalition Government) nothing is prescriptive: local Boards can make their own choices depending on their assessment of local priorities.
Our approach was to see how many were highlighting fuel poverty and cold homes as a priority subject: sadly, the headcount is rather disappointing. But these Boards are very new and still feeling their way, so there is much to lobby for at a local level going forward.
That is where we hope these reports will be helpful. The health consequences of living in a cold home are, in our view, a very serious matter for public health to attend to.
While fuel poverty has long been seen as an energy issue, the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (which bring together health practitioners and local authorities with their housing, social care and wider public service responsibilities) should be natural leaders of a broader, cross-disciplinary assault on this long-standing but totally preventable problem.
A problem, and a blight, on the lives of over 3m households in England according to the most recent official statistics.