Finding warmth: fuel poverty in Scotland
There are some now very familiar anecdotes used to highlight how difficult life can be for people living below the poverty line.
The family that gives back a handout from a food bank because they cannot afford to turn the gas on to cook it; or the pensioner who uses their free bus pass to travel to the out-of-town shopping centre for the day because it means a few hours of free heat.
By November 2016, these types of tales should be a thing of the past, as the culmination of a 15-year promise comes to pass and the blight of ‘fuel poverty’ is eradicated in Scotland.
The pledge was made as part of the Housing Act passed in 2001 by the Labour/ Lib-Dem coalition, that choosing between heating and eating was a harsh reality for too many Scottish families.
Since that time, politicians from all sides have called for greater action and this Scottish Government has pledged its commitment to ending fuel poverty “as far as practicable” by the deadline.
But the latest figures on how many homes are spending more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel bills have rocketed. According to the latest Scottish House Condition Survey, as of 2013, 940,000 people were classed as living in fuel poverty.
If that’s the deep-seated issue around poverty, that we are making people live in homes that are so expensive to run that they fear they would need to put the cooker on to boil a pan of rice for 12 minutes, then my God, there is something spectacularly wrong within society
And Energy Action Scotland, a charity that has been fighting for tougher action for more than 20 years, estimates that as things stand this figure has already crept over one million.
The organisation’s director, Norrie Kerr, said the original target was “exceptionally realistic” at the time.
“It’s a bit like schoolkids having an assignment to meet, they tell you normally on a Sunday evening, it’s due for the Monday morning. They’ve known about it for the past week and a half but they’ve chosen to ignore it up until then.”
Since the target was set, Kerr says there have been achievements in tackling fuel poverty, greater numbers of homes being insulated and a move to a more area-based approach, but he adds the timelag on this has meant opportunities were missed early on.
He criticises particularly the concentration solely on improving energy efficiency in social-rented housing and not enough on the privately-rented sector, despite this making up the lion’s share of the market.
Energy prices fell not long after the Act was passed, meaning an automatic improvement in the statistics, but Kerr said this gave politicians a false sense of security.
At the time of going to press, the Scottish Government was due to publish its annual fuel poverty strategy and Kerr said it was time for honesty over whether targets are going to be met.
Speaking to a Scottish Parliament committee earlier this year, Kerr warned that while the charity had previously said £200m was needed for measures such as energy-efficiency programmes – a calculation made back in 2006 – the spend needed now to bring all houses up to a decent standard could be £3bn.
He said: “I think we need an honest assessment of whether they make that target or not.
“If their answer is ‘no, we can’t make that target’ then how do they have a dialogue with Energy Action Scotland and other key stakeholders like the Fuel Poverty Forum to say how we move forward and on what timescale – and what kind of budget can be put towards that.”
The Scottish Government has continued to stress its commitment to end fuel poverty.
Opening Energy Action Scotland’s annual conference in Aviemore last month, Housing Minister Margaret Burgess said it was a “scandal” that anybody in energy-rich Scotland should be in fuel poverty and said the Government was doing all it could with the powers it has, to address it.
Kerr said there needs to be more on how the challenges can be addressed when the annual statement comes out.
“Being committed unrealistically is like saying, ‘I’m committed to being the first person on the Virgin Galactic space travel programme when it comes back into being again’, but if you’ve not got any opportunity to fund that or you’ve got a fear of flying, you’re never going to do it.”
He adds: “It’s great that they’ve still got the commitment; what they need to back that up with is some harsh reality of the situation we’re in.”
While the SNP have been in power for more than half the time since the 2016 commitment, he stresses all politicians have to take responsibility for fuel poverty.
Scotland is likely to receive more powers over energy-efficiency measures as a result of the Smith Commission’s recommendations on devolution. At present, aspects like the Energy Company Obligation are set by Westminster, leading to a degree of confusion over where the responsibility lies.
The UK also has its problems with fuel poverty, but Scotland has the added issue of a high percentage of homes in more rural areas and, crucially, not connected to the main grid – meaning their energy costs will always be higher.
But how does Britain compare to other countries where harsh winters are a fact of life?
In 2013, ACE Research for Energy Bill Revolution compared fuel poverty and energy efficiency in the UK to 15 other countries, it was among the worst on energy poverty, affordability of heating, fuel efficiency in homes and excess winter deaths.
Compared to Sweden, the UK, which has milder winters, had a 23 per cent higher rate of excess deaths in winter and four times as many people couldn’t afford to heat their homes.
In addition, energy bills as a proportion of household spending were 70 per cent higher in the UK, despite Sweden paying a higher price for each unit of energy for heating.
One of the central reasons for the UK’s poor performance was that UK homes were just colder. Three times as much heat was lost through the walls because of poor insulation compared to the Scandinavian country.
If the Scottish Government effectively announces it is starting from square one and sets a new target for achieving the aim of ending fuel poverty, it would be doing so in a different economic climate.
Fuel prices have risen considerably – although an incoming UK Labour government has pledged it will force a price freeze if it is elected to Westminster in next year’s General Election – but in addition, household incomes have fallen, particularly after the global financial crisis.
But even though it would be easy to argue that while budgets are squeezed, the money is not there to fund measures, the evidence is also growing of how much money it could save.
Improving housing conditions can cut health problems and about 40 per cent of excess winter deaths in Scotland can be attributed to living in cold, damp homes.
An energy-saving pilot scheme run by Gentoo Group in the North East of England showed a dramatic reduction in healthcare costs.
The ‘Boiler on Prescription’ pilot installed new boilers in the homes of NHS patients, leading to a 28 per cent reduction in GP appointments and a 33 per cent reduction in outpatient appointments over the first six months it ran.
A cost-benefit analysis by Professor Christine Liddell, a fuel poverty expert at the University of Ulster, showed that investing £1 in affordable heating in homes delivered a 42p saving to the NHS.
Yet for all the increasing numbers being a cause for concern for campaigners, fuel poverty has not had the level of attention it has demanded in previous years.
During the independence debate, poverty was a central issue, but focused more on the rise in food banks and in particular, child poverty, while milder temperatures in 2014 have meant there has been less focus on the issue of heating bills – although this may change as the winter goes on.
But Kerr says he does not want to be in a “sick competition” to see which type of poverty is worse.
“Scotland has a problem with poverty,” he says. “We have far too many people who are struggling to have the basic human right of a warm, dry, affordable-to-run home.”
He has been told stories of people who have come to food banks, only to hand donations back because they dare not use the cooker to heat up food.
“If that’s the deep-seated issue around poverty, that we are making people live in homes that are so expensive to run that they fear they would need to put the cooker on to boil a pan of rice for 12 minutes, then my God, there is something spectacularly wrong within society,” he says.
“We’ve got pensioners who spend their days going to big out-of-town shopping centres on their free bus pass because the heating there is free.
“Why are we forcing them to do that? Because they don’t want to invite people into their homes anymore and that says something about the society we’re living in.”
He adds: “People are having to make choices that in this day and age we should not be asking them to make. It’s unthinkable that we have people living in Scotland who have a comparable lifestyle to those living in much harsher and more difficult social environments and that’s a travesty.”