The figures for ‘excess winter deaths’ for last winter (2013-14) are mercifully down on the truly awful figures for the previous year. But this is no cause for celebration. It is a grim reminder that the debate about energy is not just about prices, but is also about lives, illness and misery.
Fundamentally, 18,200 people suffered avoidable death – far more than died in road fatalities – related to living in a cold home.
There is a general consensus which acknowledges that Britain’s poor quality housing stock, too much of which is old and thermally inefficient, needs a substantial upgrade. But as the political debate trundles slowly forward (and will become enmeshed in the General Election campaign), the Government backed programmes in England designed to deliver this are simply failing.
FAILURE OF EXISTING PROGRAMMES
The Energy Company Obligation, the scheme funded by the energy industry and intended to support low income households, is delivering far fewer improvements than this time last year as a result of re-calibration after the ‘green taxes’ furore last autumn.
Meanwhile the Green Deal – to help those households who can pay out of the savings energy efficiency improvements would yield in their bills – is woefully under-performing against the expectations when it launched at the beginning of 2013.
The vigorous and determined retrofit programme urgently needed is still a rather distant prospect, and meanwhile these excess winter deaths continue to highlight the policy failure.
Ofgem, the energy regulator, reckons the cost of keeping an average house adequately warm is about £1350 a year – a huge element for a single pensioner on Pension Credit receiving about £7500 as an income.
URGENT ACTION NEEDED
But energy efficiency makes a staggering difference to that average figure. Someone living in a new house built to current building standards can expect an annual bill of four or five hundred pounds less than that average, but someone in an old, thermally inefficient home might need to pay in excess of £2000 to keep adequately warm.
Bills of that magnitude will obviously challenge people on low incomes, and it cannot be surprising that the upshot is that people are inadequately warm and miserable, and are putting their health and wellbeing in jeopardy.
Age UK, along with a wide coalition of voluntary and community groups and private companies (including the energy suppliers) is pressing for urgent action and a significant investment in Budgets and Spending Rounds going forward.
A STRONG ECONOMIC CASE
Is this realistic in a time of austerity? The excess winter deaths and increased illness and suffering in winter are a moral imperative, and a tangible cost to health services. But aside from costs to our health and social care services, independent economists (commissioned by the coalition group Energy Bill Revolution) have shown that there is a strong economic case for this investment.
Fewer power stations would be needed if we were to reduce demand. New jobs would be created in new industries, relieving unemployment and bringing in new tax revenues to the Government. The country would be less exposed to volatile (and increasing) global energy prices, and less dependent on unstable sources of supply.
And of course there would be fewer carbon emissions, less global warming, and less air pollution. These are big prizes. What are we waiting for?
Each year, we spend a few days ruing these avoidable deaths. As we run in to the next General Election, we need to turn the heat up on our politicians, and demand a serious response. Older people are at risk, but so are the very young and many disabled people.
There is an unanswerable moral and economic case, and it is unforgivable if we simply stand mutely by, wringing our hands.
Find out more about our campaign for warm homes