We need an ambitious and comprehensive fuel poverty policy

21 May 2013

The UK has traditionally been at the forefront of public debates and government policies to address fuel poverty. Until recently, the array of state measures designed to combat the condition included several state-sponsored energy efficiency programmes (such as Warm Front, the Carbon Emission Reduction Target, and the Community Energy Saving Programme), which addressed many of the underlying structural causes of fuel poverty.

However, the last six months has seen a radical policy shift in the provision of assistance for both fuel poverty and energy efficiency investment more generally. There has effectively been a complete withdrawal of state funding for fuel poverty programmes. The private sector is expected to pick up the tab, but will only do so to a limited and much more focused extent.

A recent report by the Association for the Conservation of Energy estimated that the total budget dedicated for fuel poor households in England will decrease from £3.912 billion in 2009 to £2.689 billion in 2013 – a nominal reduction of 31 per cent – while within the total funds estimated to reach the fuel poor, the energy efficiency budget is expected to decline by 44 per cent, from £376 million in 2009 to £209 million in 2013.

In essence, we have seen the privatisation of energy efficiency and fuel poverty policy, and its ‘residualisation’ towards either households who may be eligible to receive home improvement loans, or specific groups deemed to be most socially vulnerable, and in need of direct support. The key prerogative of such a move is that the policy is no longer funded via general taxation, but rather through an indirect levy on energy bills.

In terms of the social aspects of energy efficiency improvements, one of the implications of current policies is a situation whereby, as noted by the Centre for Sustainable Energy, low-income households are facing a ‘triple injustice’: even though they bring about lower carbon emissions, they pay more for emission reduction efforts while benefiting less from the resulting measures.

Thus, the 10 per cent of households with highest incomes are associated with three times the amount of domestic and transport carbon emissions of the lowest-income 10 per cent; also, while it is expected that current approaches will lead to a 7 per cent reduction of household energy bills for the lowest-income 10 per cent of by 2020, the equivalent figure for the highest-income is expected to reach 12 per cent. The report singles out the feed-in tariff as particularly regressive in this regard.

More fundamentally, the new policy regime is characterised by a low awareness of the need to improve the domestic energy services or efficiency circumstances of groups that were already ‘hard to reach’ in the past: mainly those living in the private rented sector or multiple occupancy housing (particularly leasehold flats) as well as ethic minority and ‘non-traditional’ (flat-sharer) households.

The lack of adequate domestic energy services among such constituencies is the product of a complex interplay of vulnerabilities, many of which hinge on their specific residential arrangements and energy needs. This cannot be easily addressed via tightly-defined support frameworks that require the personal initiative of households needing the support, and are constrained by means-tested or area-based criteria.

As many of the participants in this week’s international seminar on energy vulnerability in Manchester will emphasise, a much more ambitious and comprehensive approach to tacking fuel poverty and energy efficiency improvements will be necessary if we are to genuinely start addressing the driving forces of this predicament – not the least given its stubborn persistence and significant extent. In the least, this would require the development of a state-led strategic effort to undertake a low carbon transition across every city and region in the country, ensuring that energy efficiency measures are delivered via a democratic, inclusive and comprehensive process.

There is also a need to establish and recognise, to the broadest extent possible, that fairness is an integral component of climate change mitigation policies. A genuine movement towards a sustainable energy future for all cannot happen without fostering a collective engagement with the extensive social, cultural and economic transformations that are required by this endeavour.

Professor Stefan Bouzarovski is a leading social geographer from the University of Manchester.