Building Sustainable Tenancies: Tackling fuel poverty

With nearly 15% of the population at risk of fuel poverty, campaigning politicians have this firmly in their sights.  What is being done to combat the cold?
With nearly 15% of the population at risk of fuel poverty, campaigning politicians have this firmly in their sights.  What is being done to combat the cold?

Across the UK there are 4 million households at risk of fuel poverty this winter. The inability to protect yourself from the cold can seriously affect physical and mental wellbeing and is responsible for an extra 32,000 deaths in the UK each winter. Poor housing is the biggest culprit for causing fuel poverty in the UK and perhaps surprisingly, it is tenants of privately rented accommodation and owner-occupied properties that are faring the worst. Interestingly, social housing providers in comparison, have fewer occupants living in fuel poverty; we’re doing well, but there’s still room to improve.

The numbers are stark; over 10% of the UK’s population are facing poor health due to living in cold, damp homes. It’s an issue that affects people across the UK, with the likelihood of experiencing fuel poverty around equal for those living in both urban and rural areas. To be defined as fuel poor in the UK a household has to incur energy prices above the national median – which is £1200 per annum – and if they were to spend that, be left below the poverty line – which is currently measured as being 60% below the median household income. 

Overwhelmingly, housing is the most prolific cause of fuel poverty and dedication to physically improving housing stock is the primary strategy to prevent associated disease and deaths. Of the UK’s fuel poor homes, 96% are poorly insulated. By 2020 the government has compelled landlords to upgrade all properties in efficiency Band F and G to an E85 rating, or spend at least £3,500 on improvements to their properties, whilst by 2030 all fuel poor homes must be brought up to at least a Band C. It is estimated that to deliver the 2030 target, £1.2 billion per year will be needed, which as it currently stands, will not be government funded, meaning that housing providers are bearing the weight of the social cost of fuel poverty. According to the End fuel Poverty Coalition, if all houses were to meet the 2030 target of a Band C rating, the economic return to the UK would be £8.7 million and we could reduce our gas imports by 26%.

To meet these targets means putting co-current strategies in place for housing providers. First on the list is identifying existing stock with poor efficiency ratings and applying a 3R plan: Repair, Retrofit, Re-home. While waiting for one of the 3R solutions, residents can be made aware that they are eligible for a Warm Home Discount whereby any property in Band E or below can get £140 deducted from their energy bill. Looking forward, all new builds need to be built to Code 4 Sustainable Homes Standards, which would ensure that they are highly energy efficient, have low carbon emissions and in turn, give residents direct savings on energy bills.

The welcome news, according to the government department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, is that social housing properties tend to be more energy efficient than other types of property. This is predominantly because of the prevalence of purpose-built blocks that are up to twice as energy efficient as converted flats.

CASE STUDY: Secure Warm Modern Programme, NCH

Nottingham City Homes worked with partners to install 280 solar roof panels on customers’ homes, as a result of which, residents were able to make a saving of up to £200 annually on their electricity bills. Three large tower blocks in Nottingham were given a complete retrofit, including new windows, external insulation and roof insulation. All three of the blocks reduced their carbon footprint and 270 residents reported reduced fuel bills, with many being lifted out of the fuel poverty band and some saying they were saving up to 50% on their energy bills.

CASE STUDY: Look after my bills

Look after my bills offers auto switching for consumers to the cheapest energy suppliers. When each deal comes to an end, they will check the market again, seeing if they can save the customer money on their bills. This service rolls on indefinitely and remains free because they take commission from the energy companies they switch customers to. Unlike traditional price comparison websites however, the commission they take is the same amount for each company. To sign up, customers need an email address, address information, latest energy bill and direct debit details.

CASE STUDY: Beanbag, Smart heat meter

Beanbag offers long-term investment in connected home products. It is an app-enabled thermostat that allows social housing tenants to control their heating and hot water remotely. Participating housing providers get access via the Beanbag portal to see how properties are using their energy and in turn, identify those at risk of fuel poverty due to poor quality housing stock or those overheating their property and spending more than necessary.

For housing providers, data is the key to identifying tenants at most risk of suffering because of the cold weather. Getting a picture of exactly who is living in housing stock, paired with their financial situation could be the key to putting an intervention in place. Something as simple as the ability to quickly find out the ages of those living in your properties, alongside the repair requests for a particular issue can offer a bigger picture of who is at risk this winter. Our InSight software draws on multiple internal and external sources of data to piece together a full picture of social housing tenants’ situations. Coastal Housing Group have been using InSight to provide personalised, informed support for their customers:

 “InSight equips us to proactively support tenants, ensuring we use evidence not opinion in our work. Our staff access the data immediately and proactively and then have informed one-to-one contact with tenants. The alternative is manually acquiring and scoring public records and then, typically, it would only be in our second or third visit with a tenant that we might fully understand their financial situation. With InSight, we turn up at the first visit with the information at our fingertips. This is significant in terms of resources, both time and money.”

Coastal Housing Group, Housing Partners customer

A government report this year using 2017 data reported that in real terms, the fuel poverty gap has fallen £812million, or 4.3% in the UK since highs in 2011.  It is worth noting however, that the parameters used to define fuel poverty were amended by the government in recent years to be less stringent. In Western Europe, the UK is ranked a disappointing 14/16 in terms of fuel poverty.

Rather than the numerical indicators described in the introduction of this piece, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act reads a lot more loosely: ‘A person is to be regarded as living “in fuel poverty” if he is a member of a household living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost’

These numbers are not falling as rapidly as reported and without adequate government funding the social housing sector has been given sole responsibility of ensuring their residents remain safe and well in the winter. Adoption of innovation, alongside physical overhaul of housing stock has meant that the social housing sector is now outperforming the private rental and owner-occupied homes in protecting its residents and with tools that can give a more accurate view of tenants’ situations, this situation can only improve.

If you want to know more about how we are supporting housing providers maintain their sustainable tenancies, contact us on info@housingpartners.co.uk.

Please note that Housing Partners do not advocate the commercial products used as examples in this article. Please ensure that you check that these are the best options for you before using.