Fuel poverty - don’t leave it out in the cold

Written by Gerry McLaughlin on 15 December 2016 in Comment

Associate feature: NHS Health Scotland's chief executive Gerry McLaughlin says the organisation can support a fuel poverty strategy

Gerry McLaughlin - NHS Health Scotland​

Associate feature on behalf of NHS Health Scotland

Living in a warm, dry home is important for good health. Living in fuel poverty means that in order to heat their home to a satisfactory standard, people need to spend more than 10 per cent of their household income on fuel.     

Having enough money for fuel is critical to maintaining and protecting health. The combination of low household income, high fuel prices and the condition and energy efficiency of the house dramatically increases the risk of fuel poverty, meaning some households simply can’t afford to keep their homes adequately heated.

Fuel poverty is also influenced by the type of heating system, the number of people who live in the house, the ages and health of those who live there, and how long they spend at home.

There is little doubt that cold and damp housing causes and contributes to an array of physical and mental health problems. In extremis, it can even be a matter of life or death. Living in a cold home is linked to asthma, chest, breathing and mental health problems, slowed physical growth and cognitive development in children & young people. 

For older people, it can increase the risk of circulatory and respiratory diseases, falls and injury and often leads to social isolation. 

I believe we should see having a warm dry home is a basic element of our right to health and something that everyone should be able to afford. So this means tackling poverty and that has to include fuel poverty. 

No one should have to choose between heating and other essentials such as food.

In Scotland, Ministers, Local Authorities and the third sector are working together to develop strategies to address fuel poverty across all housing tenures. And the private sector have obligations too. UK energy companies are obliged to promote energy efficiency to both reduce carbon emissions and tackle fuel poverty. Meeting these responsibilities is essential. 

Efforts by the UK & Scottish Governments to influence domestic fuel costs are welcome. So too is the focus on bridging the gap between energy costs and income. There are countless opportunities for us do this in Scotland through the Living Wage incentives and the use of new social security powers to provide benefits for people whose income falls short.

But the public health community and front line public service delivery has a role too. Through our work on health inequalities, we could support identification of those households who are at risk of fuel poverty, as well as testing out solutions to address it. We can ensure that questions about fuel poverty become part of routine inquiry in primary care and when delivering care within people’s homes. We can for example use the Link Worker Programmes to ensure people can access the support they need to overcome fuel poverty.

A collaborative, joined up approach is needed. At NHS Health Scotland we are ready and willing to support development of a fuel poverty strategy that will succeed in tackling fuel poverty once and for all. When it comes to the public’s health, we cannot afford to leave fuel poverty out in the cold.

Gerry McLaughlin is chief executive of NHS Health Scotland

To find out more about health inequalities, the work of NHS Health Scotland or to explore how we can work together for a fairer, healthier Scotland, contact Elspeth Molony, Organisational Lead for Communications and Engagement or follow the health board on twitter

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