How to get help with fuel poverty

Fuel poverty is a big problem in the UK – the latest figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy show that in 2017, there were an estimated 2.53 million households living in fuel poverty.

And it's a problem that could be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as more and more people find themsleves out of work or on a reduced income. Here's all you need to know about fuel poverty, along with information on the assistance available to help you out if you're stuggling.

Between 1 January 2020 and 30 June 2020, people who switched energy supplier for both gas & electricity with Uswitch saved an average of £387.

Although the figure represents a slight drop on the 2016 figure, it accounts for 11% of the UK population – a statistic that’s more alarming by the fact that fuel poverty was at an all-time low of 1 million households just over a decade ago.

What is fuel poverty?

Although fuel poverty is basically being unable to afford to keep your home adequately heated, it’s actually directly related to income – the actual fuel poverty definition is a household that spends more than 10% of its total income on fuel use, which includes heating, hot water, lighting and the use of appliances.

In the UK, an adequately heated home has a living room temperature of 21°C and a temperature of no less than 18°C in other occupied rooms, with lower temperatures at night.

What causes fuel poverty?

There are four main issues which can combine to cause fuel poverty. These are:

  1. Low household income
  2. High energy costs
  3. Poor energy efficiency of the home
  4. Under occupancy of the home

Low wages and high energy costs are the two main drivers behind fuel poverty – so, given the UK’s current climate of stagnating wages and increasing energy costs, it’s hardly surprising that so many households are falling into the fuel poverty category in the UK each year.

Households with insulated cavity walls are less likely to be living in fuel poverty, than those without – 6% compared to 18% - and older properties, which weren’t necessarily built with energy efficiency in mind, have a higher proportion of households in fuel poverty (18%) than newer build properties (4%).

It’s those living in privately rented properties that are among those being hit the hardest - 21% of tenants with private landlords are living in fuel poverty, compared to just 7% in owner-occupied properties. A combination of soaring rental costs, falling wages, and a dereliction of duty by some landlords will all be contributing to this particular problem.

The most depressing statistic though, is that the highest instance of fuel poverty is among lone parents with dependent children, almost a quarter (23%) of whom are struggling to adequately heat their homes.

What are the effects of fuel poverty?

It’s easy to dismiss fuel poverty as a problem that can be solved by simply ‘putting a jumper on’, or ‘being more energy efficient’, but the truth is that this problem goes well beyond putting on a couple of extra layers, and millions of people can’t afford the relative luxury of double glazing, or to have adequate loft and cavity wall insulation installed.

And there are landlords out there whose homes don’t meet minimum energy efficiency and even safety standards, as a recent study from AXA Insurance, found that 5% of properties pose an ‘excess cold hazard’ to residents as they fall into the worst-rated energy-efficiency bands. This means one in every 20 rental properties are at risk of contributing to fuel poverty for tenants and increased CO2 emissions.

The effects of fuel poverty are far-reaching and long-lasting, and it’s a problem that contributes to:

  • 27,000 ‘winter deaths’ a year in England & Wales
  • an increase in illness and the consequent strain on NHS and social services
  • high levels of debt on gas and electricity accounts
  • social isolation
  • discomfort, anxiety and stress
  • negative impact on development of children and young adults.

Which parts of the UK are hit hardest by fuel poverty?

Fuel poverty is worse in some parts of the UK than others.

The map below is taken from the government's Sub-regional fuel poverty statistics report and shows that the majority of local authorities in the South East had below average fuel poverty levels.

Conversely, some of the local authorities in the North West, London and the West Midlands had the highest levels of Fuel Poverty in the country.

Map of England showing areas most affected by fuel poverty

How to get help with fuel poverty

Fighting fuel poverty has been a legal obligation for the government since 2001, when it became mandatory for the ruling party to implement initiatives and policies to tackle the problem. During this period, energy suppliers have also recognised they have certain responsibilities, particularly where vulnerable customers are concerned.

Warm home discount

If you’re struggling, check out whether you’re eligible for the Warm Home Discount, the Cold Weather Payment, or the Winter Fuel Payment, which is a tax-free cash payment of between £100 and £300 to help pay your heating bills, available to anyone born on or before May 5, 1953.

Energy efficiency grants

If you’re on certain benefits, and own your own home, or are a private tenant, you might be able to get help to improve its energy-efficiency, such as free or subsidised loft and cavity wall insulation, as well as heating upgrades, including replacing or repairing your boiler. For more information, and to find out what you might be eligible for, go to GOV.UK.

The government also launched the Green Homes Grant Scheme in Septmeber 2020. For more information, check out our blog Everything you need to know about the Green Homes Grant scheme

New energy regulations

As of December 15, 2020, Ofgem is introducing new rules to help vulnerable customers who are struggling to pay their energy bills. If you're on a prepayment meter and can't afford your top-up repayments, your supplier will need to offer you emergency credit. If you have a credit meter and have fallen into debt with your supplier, they will have to offer you a "realistic and sustainable" repayment plan.

These rules were originally put in place back in March to help people cope with lockdown, when self-isolation and the need to work from home meant households were using much more energy than they normally would. but the energy regualtor has now updated its licence rules to formally require suppliers to help customers in financial difficulty.

Fuelbank Foundation

Fuel Bank is currently available in selected foodbanks and advice agencies across Great Britain. If you're household has been deemed as in ‘crisis need’ by an independent referrer, Fuel Bank will provide a top up voucher that provides approximately two weeks’ worth of fuel to for your prepayment meter to help heat your home and to cook with.

The scheme helps prevent self-disconnection - this is when you can't afford to top up your meter and the lights switch off when the money runs out - and ensures you're are not left without energy for the basics like cooking and heating. And in the COVID-19 lockdown, the ability to home-school your kids.

For more information, including how to donate, go to https://www.fuelbankfoundation.org/

Energy and money-saving tips

Regardless of whether or not you’re a vulnerable customer, or on benefits, there are steps you can help to fight fuel poverty. Try some or all of the following:

  • Switch energy provider – Switching supplier is a quick and easy way to cut your gas and electricity bills. Making the switch with UK Power could see you save as much as £618 on your annual energy bills.
  • Speak to your energy provider – If you’re struggling to pay your bills, don’t bury your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away – it won’t. In fact, it will only get worse. Believe it or not, cutting off your supply is the last thing your supplier wants to do, and they actually can’t just cut you off without offering advice, support, and a way to pay your bills. So get in touch with them if you get a bill you can’t afford, and see what arrangement you can come to.
  • Consider a prepayment meter – If you’re having trouble budgeting, a prepayment meter could help, as this means you pay for energy as you use it, and so can’t run up massive bills that could land you badly in debt.
  • Be more energy efficient – We’re all guilty of needlessly leaving lights on, or having the heating on too high, but just making small changes to how and when you use energy can make a big difference to your bills. If you need some ideas, check out How to reduce your electricity and gas usage and get some more useful tips from the short video below.

5 free and easy ways to keep warm for less this winter

Beat the energy price hikes with these 5 free and easy ways to save energy and save money this winter.

If you’re struggling to make ends meet, and energy bills are adding to your worries, get in touch with Citizens Advice, or give their consumer helpline a call on 03454 04 05 06