A Grassroots Answer to the Fuel Poverty Crisis

by Clare Walton

Part 1: High energy bills in the UK are driving a fuel poverty crisis made worse by austerity and a failure to respond to climate change.

First published: 18 August, 2014 | Category: 

Fuel Poverty Action is one of a number of grassroots campaigns currently working to ensure respect for our right to warm homes and clean, affordable energy. This two-part article draws on the experience of Fuel Poverty Action to show what communities across the UK can do about the fuel poverty crisis—and the related climate crisis.

Living in fuel poverty: what does it mean?

Last winter at least 10,000 deaths in the UK were caused by the effects of cold homes. This isn’t all; one in four homes are having to make regular choices between ‘heating and eating’, one in five homes are in debt to their energy supplier and there is evidence to suggest that teenagers growing up in cold homes are five times more likely to suffer from multiple mental health issues than their warmer peers. Combined with the fact that the Big Six energy companies (that’s British Gas, E.On, EDF, Scottish Power, SSE and npower) made a combined £3.7billion last year, and yet still hiked their prices by as much as 10% last autumn, it isn’t hard to see why these companies are now more unpopular than the banks. 

Beyond the statistics, people’s every day experience of fuel poverty brings home the magnitude of the current crisis. Through the ‘Speak out On your Situation’ section of Fuel Poverty Action’s website and through conversations with fellow campaigners, we have repeatedly heard from people feeling suicidal, so worn down from being locked in a cold home; people who blame themselves for falling ill or becoming disabled and then having to increase household energy consumption; from people washing just in cold water throughout the winter; women who are survivors of sexual violence finding uninvited men from British Gas in their homes, having broken in to fit an unwanted prepayment meter; parents and children all sleeping together in the living room during winter to keep warm; people who have been ill all winter due to their cold home; people unable to afford to top up their prepayment meter and so forced to sit in the cold and dark for days at a time;  pensioners who don’t turn the heating on until their thermometer tells them they are at risk of hypothermia; people neither heating nor eating.

It is clear there is an enormous problem, but currently no coherent political consensus as to why or what the solution may be.

Why does fuel poverty exist?

Whilst wages have remained stagnant for the last few years, average household energy bills have steeply increased. The average bill was £885 five years ago; it now stands at closer to £1,400.

Different sides in the argument blame different factors. The energy industry lobby blames renewable energy, the government’s ‘green levies’ and international fossil fuel prices. The government blames the lack of competition and insists that more ‘switching’ from one Big Six provider to another would bring down bills. Campaigners blame a lack of action on drafty homes, an increasing reliance on expensive gas, increasing profits for the Big Six, and the slashing of wages and benefits.

If we take a step back, we see there are three factors which have created the ‘energy bill crisis’ across the UK: high fuel costs, low incomes, and a poorly made and insulated housing stock which wastes large amounts of energy. The reality is that, as argued by the Big Six, international fossil fuel prices do account for a large part of the rise of our bills; the raw cost of purchasing fossil fuels accounts for more than 50% of our household bills.

However, both the government and Big Six are being disingenuous when they blame increasing bills on ‘green levies’ (small taxes added to bills to fund social and environmental measures linked to energy). Green levies currently account for no more than £62 per average bill, whilst the amount the Big Six companies make per household per year is now more than £100 – a figure which has increased for many years running. On top of these gains, the Big Six make additional profits from generating energy and selling it to each other, although it is difficult to find out exactly how much they make as figures released generally only show the profits from retail, the bit when they sell to us.

Big Six profits aside, the government is again being disingenuous by refusing to see the link between austerity measures and an increase in fuel poverty. Yet when people can’t afford to pay their expensive energy bills because, for example, they have been sanctioned by the job centre, the consequences are extreme. Last year a diabetic man died after being sanctioned and being unable to keep his fridge on to keep his insulin cool.

In the end, there is simply no incentive for our for-profit, fossil fuel based energy system to ever work for our needs.  There are currently six enormous multi-national corporations controlling and profiteering from energy generation as well as from the retail sale of energy. With these six companies controlling 95% of the market, it’s not a surprise that our energy system is exacerbating a poverty crisis.

The injustice of this fuel poverty crisis is, moreover, closely connected with the injustice of the looming climate crisis. By continuing to resist a transition to alternative renewable energy sources, the Big Six in the UK are further entrenching our collective dependence on fossil fuels, the main source of climate change-inducing carbon emissions. A recent report by Joseph Rowntree shows that climate change will worsen UK inequality. It is again older and disabled people who are disproportionately affected by heat waves caused by climate change, as well as cold winters, while low-income households in low-lying areas are disproportionately affected by flooding. It is poorer families that can’t afford food as the prices go up due to extreme weather conditions impacting crop yields. If large-scale fracking does go ahead it is already obvious that when wells leak, water is polluted and communities are destroyed, it is poorer communities who will suffer the most. The social injustice that fossil fuelled climate change creates means that ‘more cheap coal’ simply cannot be the answer to the fuel poverty crisis.

What’s being done about it?

The crisis requires a grassroots response. That’s why over the last three years, a diverse group of people directly affected by fuel poverty, including pensioners, disabled activists, and womens’ group, have been taking direct action against the injustice of cold homes and energy profiteers. From blockading Whitehall for two hours and a noisy pots and pans demo outside the recent British Gas AGM, to a more practical solidarity in the form of the Keep Warm Coffee Mornings, London-based grassroots group Fuel Poverty Action has been pushing the debate on fuel poverty forwards, and in a radical direction.

The overall campaign aim of Fuel Poverty Action is for the current expensive, for-profit, polluting energy system to be replaced with an affordable, sustainable and democratic alternative. FPA aims to mobilise the huge public rage against the Big Six energy companies, as well as to amplify the voices of those most affected by cold homes and energy debt. We also recognise that renewable energy has to be at the heart of solving the energy bill crisis- it’s no good using coal to drive down prices now when the climate change it causes will only increase food prices in the now and in the future, leaving households once against struggling to get by.

Fuel Poverty Action also has practical demands for the here and now. The first is the scrapping of the ‘Standing Charge’ which is a kind of regressive ‘tax’ charged to every household’s gas and electric meter which typically works out at about £100 per meter (or £200 per household). The same amount is charged by companies whether their customer lives in a one bed flat or a mansion. The second is to see that energy companies’ legal right to break and enter people’s homes, which they do hundreds of times a day across the UK in order to reclaim debt, is revoked.

Fuel Poverty Action exists within a wider arena of people who are getting organised on the issue of fuel poverty. The strategy and types of organising that are taking place as well as alternative ways to run an energy system will be looked at in part two.

Clare Walton is an activist and campaigner working with Fuel Poverty Action.


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