Disarray in fuel poverty policy

In their consideration of the Energy Select Committee report on Energy Prices, Profits and Fuel Poverty (published 29 July), the media focused on the opacity of the energy companies’ accounts, the lack of transparency, and the apparent weakness of the Regulator, Ofgem, in looking after consumers’ interests.

Elderly woman trying to keep warm by the firesideBut the media failed to comment on the trenchant observations made by the Committee on fuel poverty. Here, the Government came in for a lot of flak. The Committee found it disappointing that so much of Government fuel poverty policy centres on short term help with bills when improving the thermal efficiency of the UK housing stock should be the priority. It commented on the hiatus in fuel poverty policy whilst thrashing out a new definition and a new approach, and observed that policy has effectively been frozen at a time when energy price rises have made energy costs increasingly unaffordable for vulnerable and low income households. Continue reading “Disarray in fuel poverty policy”

Excess Winter Deaths

In the winter of 2011/12, there were 24,000 Excess Winter Deaths in England and Wales (of which 21,700 were people over 65). By way of comparison, this shocking figure dwarfs the 1,715 people killed on roads in England and Wales in 2011.

True, the figures show a fall on last year, which in turn was a fall on the gristly winter of 2009/10. In fact, amongst the very vulnerable group of older people over 75, there was actually an increase.   But the figures go up and down each year, and it is too early to see long term trends. They are simply far too high to feel anything but shame for this country’s deplorable record on supporting its older citizens to cope with the cold.178x178_spread_the_warmth

The problem of coping with the cold is primarily an issue of housing. Broadly speaking, the older the house the more likely it is to be thermally inefficient, and the more expensive it will be to keep adequately warm.   The proportion of our housing stock built before 1919 is 22%:  a further 17% was built between 1919 and 1944. The work on insulating these homes and equipping them with modern, energy efficient heating systems has been very slow, and we have watched the numbers in fuel poverty rising remorselessly over the last eight years as energy prices have spiralled upwards. Continue reading “Excess Winter Deaths”

The fatal statistics of cold weather

The annual publication of the Excess Winter Deaths statistics are a reminder – a rather grim reminder – of how badly we manage cold in this country.

Still substantially higher than in most European countries, the figures for 2010-2011 show a small fall from the previous year, with winter deaths in all age groups falling from 28,570 to 28,150 in Great Britain (the figures for Northern Irelandare not yet available).  Of these, the majority were among people over 65 – 26,010 falling to 23,840.

In truth, since winter is defined as the 4 months December to March, the deaths counted as winter deaths are sometimes a bit arbitrary.  The substantial point is that they represent only the visible tip of an iceberg of illness, misery, unhappiness and anxiety.  Thanks to some authoritative research earlier this year by the Marmot team (on public health), we now know a lot more about the adverse effects of cold.

Obviously it exacerbates underlying circulatory and respiratory illnesses, but also feeds into depression and mental health, and by dint of people skimping on food in order to afford fuel bills, some people are not feeding themselves adequately.  These elements remain a scourge on our older population, however many deaths are counted by the statistics. Continue reading “The fatal statistics of cold weather”

Tackling fuel poverty and excess winter deaths

It may seem like an odd time to be thinking about the winter and the severe weather we have experienced over the last couple of years, but this month saw the publication of an important report by Prof Sir Michael Marmot and his report team for Friends of the Earth, looking at the health impacts of cold homes and fuel poverty. The report concludes that excess winter deaths (above what would normally be expected) are almost three times higher in the coldest quarter of housing than in the warmest quarter. As a result, thousands of deaths could be prevented each year if British homes were made more energy efficient.

In considering the impact on older people in particular, the report concluded that “the effects of cold housing were evident in terms of higher mortality risk, physical health and mental health.” It goes on to say that improving the energy efficiency of the existing stock is a long-term, sustainable way of ensuring multiple gains, including environmental, health and social gains. Around 5,500 more deaths occur in the coldest quarter of houses every year than would happen if those houses were warm. In 2009-10, there were an estimated 25,400 excess winter deaths, of which 21.5% can be attributed to the coldest quarter of housing.

Perhaps most tellingly, Prof Marmot argues that Government policies, actions and financial support for interventions aimed at reducing fuel poverty and improving the energy efficiency of existing stock need to match its stated commitment to both the public health and climate change agendas. The Government’s current support and financial commitment to addressing the problem of poor thermal efficiency of housing remains inadequate, given the potential it has to improve the health and wellbeing of the population and help mitigate climate change.

If, as the report concludes, a renewed effort is needed to support programmes and policies which have shown to be successful in increasing energy efficiency of homes and improving the health of their residents, then much of this effort will have to come through the ‘Warm Front’ scheme. This supplied grants to help pay for heating and insulation improvements, but the programme was not well targeted and it effectively ran out of money, leading to its suspension in December 2010. It was reopened in April 2011, but is now targeted at a smaller range of households on certain income-related benefits and living in properties that are poorly insulated or have a broken heating system.

The government is meanwhile conducting an independent review into the definition of fuel poverty, which while it might help us identify those most in need, will do little to address the underlying problem of cold homes and how to treat them.

Here at Age UK, we aim to tackle the problem on a number of levels, not least by offering practical advice and support services to help older people live safer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. Find out more at Spread the Warmth.