The fuel poverty strategy of 2001 (‘to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016’) has patently failed. A new one is promised in the current Energy Bill, which is completing its Parliamentary stages.
Within six months of the date of the Act receiving Royal Assent (in December or January), the Government is bound to propose a new strategy, after which there will be a public consultation, a Government response, and the tabling of the necessary secondary legislation. This ponderous process means we might not have a new strategy in place till early 2015 (though ministers hope to move faster), but clearly the thinking time has already started.
Age UK, with others, is in constant conversation with the Department of Energy & Climate Change. A key bone of contention is the targets to be set in the strategy, since these will only be real if there is funding to underpin them, and there is considerable uncertainty about the available funds.
A further difficulty is that with the new definition of fuel poverty, which is framed in relative terms. It is arithmetically nigh impossible to substantially reduce the level of fuel poverty – let alone eradicate it – so the hunt is on for alternative targets.
The latest ONS statistics show that last winter there were 28,500 excess winter deaths amongst older people. Many of these deaths could be prevented with warm, well-insulated homes.
Age UK is proposing a programme of home improvements which will begin by addressing the most energy inefficient houses (those rated in band G by their Energy Performance Certificates), progressing to band F and onwards. 70% of the fuel poor live in houses rated G, F and E (and houses in these bands comprise about a third of our housing stock). This could be funded by the receipts the Treasury is now banking from the new carbon taxes.
Such a programme will probably require substantial adjustments to the existing schemes. We have long argued that these are flawed, and that there should be much more involvement of local authorities and community organisations, and the work needs driving forward on an area-by-area, street-by-street basis. But clearly this adds further complications to the framing of a new strategy.
As fuel poverty remains alarmingly high and rising, with its concomitant ill-health and misery, nothing but a step-change and an ambitious strategy will suffice. The policy levers we are pulling today are woefully feeble and inadequate.
Age UK is campaigning for warm homes. Find out more about Age UK’s Spread the Warmth campaign