Construction has a vital role to play in tackling fuel poverty but it needs policy from government as well

Andrew Warren

We have a fuel poverty crisis. Thirteen years after the passage of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act, which set a timetable for the abolition of such dreadful housing, there are now just as many households struggling to choose between affording heating or eating.

I am a member of the government’s Fuel Poverty Advisory Group for England. For years we have published annual reports pointing out the inadequacies of existing policies. These have become shriller, as over recent years the Warm Front programme  has shrivelled in size. And from this April abandoned.

For the first time in a generation, there is no longer any publicly funded national programme designed to improve the energy standards of the homes of those low-income households in fuel poverty In England.

As ever, the Advisory Group sent copies of our annual report all around Whitehall. At best, we normally received an acknowledgment from pertinent ministers, like those at Health or Work and Pensions. Only our sponsoring department (for historical, rather than logical reasons, The Department of Energy and Climate Change - DECC) tends to respond in any substantive way.

This year was different. Our chair, Derek Lickorish, received a letter from 10 Downing Street. Not from some letters’ clerk, or general factotum. But instead written and signed by David Cameron himself.

Being unable to keep adequately warm is not just uncomfortable, it is a serious risk to health.

As well as writing that “I was interested to read the Group’s recommendations to ensure access to affordable energy,” the prime minister then specifically committed himself to two objectives.

The first was to continue “considering the work the Advisory Group has undertaken.” The second, even more significantly, was that this would be done “as we work towards our 2016 fuel poverty eradication target.”

That is precisely the target that was set on a statutory basis in 2000 under the Warm Homes Act. Practically ever since its formation in 2007, DECC has essentially been contemplating how best to evaluate precisely who is - and therefore who is not -  in fuel poverty. An internal report by a senior civil servant (Daron Walker) took 15 months, and was never published (although the immediate policy response was the gutting of the Warm Front programme.) A further six months was spent seeking a distinguished external figure effectively to do the same task.

Eventually, Professor Sir John Hills agreed to undertake the role, starting in March 2011. He produced his final report 12 months later. The government formally responded last autumn. And since then we have awaited a long promised detailed new strategy to meet the requirements of the Act.Or more likely, emasculate it.

The main remit of Professor Hills’ report was not to consider what new policies might be needed to meet “our 2016 fuel poverty eradication target.” It was to recommend how those in fuel poverty should be measured and prioritised – important, but far from the central issue.

Being unable to keep adequately warm is not just uncomfortable, it is now widely understood that living in a cold home is a serious risk to health. Our rate of excess winter deaths has long been acknowledged as a national disgrace, being so much higher than other European countries with comparable weather and affluence.

Fuel poverty and cold homes are linked also to worsened respiratory and cardiovascular illness, mental health and depression. It jeopardises children’s educational standards, both by causing ill health but also by reducing opportunities to do homework satisfactorily at home.

Above all, it is at last formally identified as a health priority. Each of the 151 county or unitary local authorities has now set up its own Health and Wellbeing Board, in line with the Health & Social Care Act 2012. These boards bring together leaders in health and social care – but sadly only rarely, housing. Each has to produce a long-term strategy. There are certain indicators which the Department of Health asks each Board to “consider” – one of which is fuel poverty, acknowledging the link between fuel poverty and a range of negative health problems.

AgeUK has examined 122 of these strategies, and marked them 1 to 5 in terms of how seriously they take fuel poverty. Disturbingly, only 4 per cent of local authorities are prioritising fuel poverty at all (plaudits to Blackburn, Coventry and Solihull). Most appear to be sidelining the issue with just a passing reference, leaving it all to DECC. Some completely ignore the problem (Barnsley, Blackpool, Ealing, East Sussex and Waltham Forest are singled out as the worst ).

Across the country, and by any definition of fuel poverty, at least one in four households are in fuel poverty today. We need to restart a publicly funded programme to improve the worst housing stock. The “replacement” Energy Company Obligation, funded by increases in fuel bills, is set to remove just four per cent from fuel poverty before 2016.

The prime minister is in no doubt. The 2016 target for fuel poverty is not amelioration. It is eradication. To comply with the law, and with the prime minister, the nation’s new fuel poverty strategy must be set to deliver nothing less.

Andrew Warren is the director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy