A Grassroots Movement for Energy Justice Comes in From the Cold

by Joe

First published: 30 October, 2014 | Category: Activism, Climate Change, Environment, Health, Housing

A guest post by Izzy Köksal.

On the evening of Monday 27 October, over a hundred people piled into committee room 12 in the Houses of Parliament for the launch of Fuel Poverty Action’s Energy Bill of Rights. First revealed back in May at a protest outside the British Gas Annual General Meeting held just around the corner, the Energy Bill of Rights is an eight point charter that aims to re-assert what should be basic and standard rights to clean, affordable, democratically controlled energy for everyone.

The Bill itself, rolled up in a large tube, almost didn’t make it to the event when it was held up by security at the entrance. Fearful that it would be unfurled in a ‘disruptive’ way in Parliament, a security guard temporarily confiscated the tube and carried it to the committee room that had been booked for the event.

Last winter, there were ten thousand excess deaths as a result of cold, inadequately heated homes; this winter, with fuel poverty on the rise, the number is likely to increase still further. Cold homes cause misery, bringing on and exacerbating both physical and mental health problems. Households struggle to put money on their prepayment meter cards or keys and are forced to self-disconnect, leaving them in the dark and cold. It was in this situation—without electricity to keep his insulin chilled in the fridge, and without food to eat after having his benefits sanctioned—that David Clapson’s body was found. This grim background hopefully makes clear why an Energy Bill of Rights is so desperately needed. The Energy Bill of Rights aims to inspire confidence and action to challenge and change an unjust energy system.

The Bill’s eight points link together our basic right to energy to meet our daily needs with the right to energy that does not cause harm to the climate and communities around the world, the right to good quality, well-insulated homes, and the right to community and public energy controlled by us. Bringing together these diverse yet related issues in one Bill, capable of speaking to a broad array of people from anti-fracking activists to those struggling over housing and poverty, helps people to see the links and make the connections among the differing goals for which they are fighting. The same energy companies that leave people to freeze in their homes in the UK are dispossessing communities elsewhere and expelling people from their homes in an unquenchable thirst for new oil and gas reserves. The emissions from these fossil fuels contribute to climate change, which will result in further impoverishment and displacement of communities across the globe—including right here in the UK.

This diversity of the struggle against fuel poverty and our unjust energy system was very much in evidence at the event on Monday night (as well as in the signatories to the Bill), with over twenty people from different groups from across London and the UK each giving brief, engaging speeches about their personal struggles and how the Energy Bill of Rights relates to them. MPs Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell began the evening talking about the need to make fuel poverty and energy justice an election issue next year. While support for an Early Day Motion in support of the Energy Bill of Rights put forward by Caroline Lucas is important, at the same time we should not just to leave it to parliamentarians: Lucas and McDonnell spoke of the importance of creative direct action taken by us. The MPs then handed over the stage to a number of people currently engaged in such organising to lay out the issues and some practical actions that can be taken.

Women made up a good majority of the speakers, speaking as pensioners, as immigrants, as mothers and carers, as anti-fracking activists, as social-housing-tenants-come-fuel-poverty-campaigners, as students and as people with disabilities. These quick-fire interventions were informative, inspiring, moving and uplifting. We heard from Lambeth Pensioners Action Group that they were fighting ‘not just for the pensioners of today, but for the pensioners of tomorrow!’ We heard from a student who had thought that damp, cold housing was part of ‘the student experience’ but now realised it was fuel poverty. Two social housing tenants from different ends of the country described how their so-called social landlords have been forcing them into fuel poverty. One had travelled down from Carlisle to tell us of the residents’ conflict over solar panels (put on north- instead of south-facing roofs) which have seen energy bills soar for residents, whilst a resident from Pembroke Park estate in West London described the energy monopoly controlled by Vital Energi facing social housing tenants on her estate while leaseholders are able to choose their own gas supplier and obtain cheaper rates. Prepayment meters were forced on all social housing tenants on the estate after some residents fell into arrears.

Campaigners from Platform and the World Development Movement described the international relevance of the Energy Bill of Rights. The former explained how energy democracy here means an end to neo-colonial resource exploitation abroad, whilst the latter read out a statement of support from Lidy Nacpil, the coordinator of Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development, who had read the Energy Bill of Rights and could relate it to the movement’s experiences.

As well as linking up a variety of different struggles, the Energy Bill of Rights seeks to generate discussion and ideas about how to implement these rights. People shared the tactics they were already using to fight against fuel poverty and energy injustice, including anti-fracking protection camps and the creation of the Hackney Energy Co-op. Fuel Poverty Action shared some of the work they have been doing to get information out about weak but already existing energy rights that can serve as a starting point for collective action to extend them. They have produced very attractive ‘Energy: Know Your Rights’ cards (contact them directly to get some for your neighbourhood) and a mini-guide to dealing with your energy company. Working together with residents on Pembroke Park estate, a member of Haringey Housing Action Group, individuals across the country, and the inspiring groups London Coalition Against Poverty and English for Action, Fuel Poverty Action have been supporting people wanting to learn about and take action regarding their energy rights, seeking to build a network of mutual support and solidarity.

The evening rounded off with people turning to their neighbours and planning actions they could take to make the Energy Bill of Rights a reality. It was suggested that Fuel Poverty Action’s yearly action on the day the ‘excess winter deaths’ statistics are announced—often towards the end of November—would be a good day for such actions. With over a hundred people in the room, each representing their own local groups, many more hundreds, if not thousands, of people can be mobilised for creative direct action on fuel poverty and community resistance to the Big Six bullies. Winter is the time when fuel poverty is most brutal and deadly, but Monday’s launch marked the beginnings of a grassroots movement for energy justice.

To find out how to get involved with Fuel Poverty Action, visit www.fuelpovertyaction.org.uk

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