The Government has published its Fuel Poverty Strategy (at last!). There aren’t too many surprises, compared to the consultation and development documents that were circulated last year. Here are some pointers:
A focus on energy efficiency
This gets a wholehearted round of applause from us. People’s incomes go up and down, and energy prices go up (down? anyone?) so the only permanent way of protecting a household from the risk of fuel poverty is by improving the energy efficiency of the home. The approach – milestone targets of minimum energy efficiency standards by certain years, leading up to a minimum C rating by 2030 – sets a clear pathway for industry (policy certainty!), the energy efficiency sector, the public sector and charities and others working with low income households.
Those energy efficiency standards
Fast enough? Tough enough? The focus is on fixing the G and F properties first, to deal with the most severe cases of fuel poverty sooner rather than later. It’s perhaps the first time that social justice issues have been put before cost effectiveness issues in the targeting of energy efficiency measures (a lot of these households will be more expensive to treat and therefore at the wrong end of a Treasury MACC curve).
There’s no real detail on how these standards will be achieved, either at the macro level (where’s the successor to ECO?) or at the micro level (which measures?) and there’s a lot of language about cost effectiveness in there still. The target itself has some woolly words – “as many fuel poor homes as is reasonably practicable” will be improved to Band C by 2030, but it’s not really clear what reasonably practicable means. The language feels a little like the “get out of jail free” offered to private landlords in the proposed energy efficiency regulations saying that improvements should be made but only where they’re available free through ECO or paid by tenants through Green Deal.
Back to the positives: starting with the F and G properties, and adding an emphasis on those with a (health) vulnerability to cold and those without access to mains gas, the Strategy leans towards a much more targeted approach to interventions. This will upset some, particularly local authorities who are keen to help communities who may be “borderline” fuel poor and may find themselves not fuel poor enough for targeted support. But, at a national level, it should mean support getting to those who need it most, soonest, in the form of energy efficiency improvements. This will hopefully be accompanied by a clearer emphasis on rebates, switching, behaviour and low cost measures to help manage the pain for those who are in less severe fuel poverty.
DECC are doing mapping of the gas network to demonstrate areas where there is scope for connections, and where initiatives might be targeted. I’d also be interested in the geographical distribution of those F&G properties, and the overlay with the gas grid. What we’ll find are some expected areas (eg, Cornwall), but also some unexpected places (even parts of outer London and Kent are off the gas grid).
It would also be interesting to look at the resource levels in local authorities in those off-grid / F&G / low income areas to see if they are well-equipped to be at the vanguard of action on fuel poverty. We may be asking a lot of some small and under-resourced districts, and it’ll be interesting to see if there are opportunities to increase jobs and skills or for authorities to partner for delivery.
Speaking of connections…
There’s a lot in the strategy around connections and partnership, particularly with the health sector. DECC has found £1million for what they call “warmth on prescription” projects to help people who face health risks because of the cold. And there’s a further £2million coming for pilot projects for innovative approaches to tackling fuel poverty.
The elephant in the room
It gets a couple of namechecks in the strategy, in the context of the numbers of homes improved, but there’s not really that much about ECO. What we’ve seen over the past few years is a scheme that is bureaucratic, complex, highly variable, under the dominion of some very large players and not able to provide the level of funding and the types of measures that people really need. Working in South East London, we encountered a mother of two whose boiler had stopped working. She’s eligible for support under any of the fuel poverty schemes that have run over the past decade, including ECO. It’s just there’s no ECO funding around. If she lived somewhere else, or wanted insulation, or had connections into a different part of the supply chain, she’d be warm. For all that the strategy hints at social justice by targeting interventions based on need, it misses the fundamental point: the system right now does not help people to keep warm.