A Grassroots Answer to the Fuel Poverty Crisis

by Clare Walton

Part 2: A campaign against fuel poverty must grow from the everyday experience of those living in cold and indebted homes.

First published: 19 August, 2014 | Category: 

The first article in this two-part series discussed the issue of fuel poverty, its causes, and the need for a sustainable approach to solving the issue. This second article uses the experience of Fuel Poverty Action and similar grassroots campaigns to explore strategies for resistance to the domination of the Big Six energy companies. It explores what is needed in order to develop an affordable, sustainable and democratic alternative energy system.

The approach: a politics shaped by everyday experience

With one in four homes currently choosing between heating and eating every winter, it’s clear that there is a desperate need to intervene. Whilst Fuel Poverty Action has adopted a direct action and mutual support approach to fuel poverty, lobby-based campaigns, such as the Energy Bill Revolution or a newly formed coalition on insulation, are pushing for a comprehensive government programme for desperately needed home insulation, which is vital in reducing bills and cutting carbon. These campaigns are important but very much sit within an understanding that if only a few policies were different the issue of fuel poverty would be solved. 

Fuel Poverty Action has a systemic view of the energy bill crisis, which means we believe there must be a fundamental shift if fuel poverty is ever to really be tackled. We think that an energy system controlled by private, multi-national companies making profit from burning fossil fuels will always create a crisis for the people at the sharp end of the business, and it is this system that must drastically change.  

Fuel Poverty Action also directly supports people affected by energy bill debt and harassment from energy companies. The campaign does this where possible through mutual solidarity, rather than by replicating a disempowering ‘expert-client’ advice work relationship. This approach is directly inspired by local grassroots groups such as Haringay Solidarity Group and the Hackney Housing Group. We are working together with locally based anti-poverty groups and housing groups to put on workshops about people’s rights when dealing with energy companies and ways that they can get energy debt reduced and even dropped. 

Everything we learn from this work we apply to our politics. For example, we have recently started campaigning on prepayment meters after dozens of people got in touch last year to tell us that they were paying more on a prepayment meter than a credit meter. They were being forced to ‘self-disconnect’ after running out of money. Many people’s homes were broken into to have a prepayment meter installed against their will after they fell behind on bill payments.

Experiences such as these are a reminder of how important it is that our politics and our actions are based on the reality of life in a cold or indebted home.

Linking fuel poverty and climate concerns

For the past couple years, Fuel Poverty Action has campaigned alongside other anti-poverty, anti-austerity groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts, the Greater London Pensioners’ Association and the Lambeth Pensioner’s Action Group. Amongst environmental campaigning groups, however, the issue of fuel poverty is still a marginal topic in many discussions about energy and climate. This is slowly changing with campaigns including Reclaim the Power and the Frack-Free Carnival earlier this year eager to include some narrative on fuel poverty. They stress that fracking won’t bring down the bills and that our energy system is killing people in fuel poverty. 

Despite this welcome attention, it is still surprisingly difficult to convince some climate campaigners that more expensive household energy bills are not and would not be a good thing, their argument being that expensive bills would help cut carbon. This view ignores the indignity faced by the millions of people who can’t afford to heat their homes. It also ignores the fact that it is business, transport, the military and the rich who should be forced to cut their energy usage the most, not hard-up households who are already using as little as they can.

An alternative energy system in the making

Outside of campaign and direct action groups there are other exciting new approaches to addressing the energy crisis already all around us. Communities and even some councils are leading the way towards a fairer energy future.

Nottingham City Council announced earlier this year that it would be setting up it’s own not-for-profit energy company. By simply being not-for-profit, this company will cut an estimated £120 off the average bill. In a low-income neighbourhood in Newport, South Wales, a ‘Gen Community’ renewable energy scheme has been knocking a combined £12,000 off the bills of 74 households who had free solar panels installed. In Brixton, London a solar energy co-op on the roofs of blocks of flats has been praised for skilling up and employing local jobless young people to install the solar panels. Other schemes starting up in Hackney and New Cross want to make reducing the fuel poverty of local residents a key aim by, for example, reinvesting money made from energy generation in free insulation for households.

These schemes are not perfect, though, and it is perhaps a little worrying to see how the projects have cropped up in areas which have also seen an accelerated pace of gentrification over the past few years. If they truly are community energy schemes, it is hoped that they will indeed represent, serve and include a true cross-section of the community.

Moreover, despite the growth in community energy initiatives, they alone cannot solve the magnitude of the poverty and climate crises. There is big public support for a more ambitious move to renationalise energy. A poll by YouGov in November last year showed that 68% of people think energy should be in public hands, including 52% of Conservative voters polled. However, Fuel Poverty Action’s perspective on this is that straight out renationalisation is not enough, or necessarily very sensible. How many people would trust the current coalition government to give us a fair and sustainable deal with energy or to resist quickly selling off to the lowest bidder at the first opportunity?

There are better alternative energy models currently being demonstrated all over the world, which we can draw inspiration from here in the UK. The model of municipalisation seen in Germany perhaps offers an example of something that could be replicated. Cities and towns throughout Germany are buying back their grid, demanding more control over where energy comes from and who profits from it. The city of Hamburg recently voted in a city referendum in favour of buying back their grid, whilst in Berlin an even more radical motion on energy just fell short of the core number of votes needed after the City government purposely put the election date just weeks after a general election.

What’s more, since it’s councils that have to pick up the tab for the costs of illness from fuel poverty, or provide debt services for those unable to manage high bills there is a greater incentive to run an energy service that works for residents. 

Grassroots leadership

In the current climate of some of the most extreme cut backs and privatisation we have ever seen it is perhaps hard to imagine that the energy system could radically change from a for-profit, polluting system to an affordable, sustainable, democratic system. But with thousands of deaths from fuel poverty, millions of people blighted by energy debt and a climate crisis already underway, things have to change, and we have to be unafraid of demanding and forcing that change. Through its experience of grassroots campaigning, Fuel Poverty Action has found we can amplify the voices of those suffering most from the current energy system and work together in solidarity for a system that works for all of us.

Fuel Poverty Action want to encourage a more radical and exciting movement around energy and have come up with an ‘Energy Bill of Rights’ which includes rights to energy to meet our basic needs and not to have our water and air polluted by fossil fuels. We don’t want to beg for crumbs from the Big Six’s table, we want to take over the whole bakery.

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

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.