Fuel poverty is the condition by which a household is unable to afford to heat (or cool) their home to an adequate temperature.
It is caused by low income, high fuel prices, poor energy efficiency, unaffordable housing prices and poor quality private rental housing.
In England, the ‘Low Income, Low Energy Efficiency’ indictor is used to determine official fuel poverty. Under this, a household is considered fuel poor if;
- They are living in a property with a fuel poverty energy efficiency rating of band D or below, and
- When they spend the required amount to heat their home, they are left with a residual income below the official poverty line.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the definition of fuel poverty is if a household spends more than 10% of its income on fuel costs and if the remaining household income is insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living.
England’s excess winter deaths index in 2002 to 2011 was higher than the average for Northern European countries, with the country ranking above the likes of Finland, which has much warmer homes (Institute of Health Equity).
Official data on levels of fuel poverty is published with some delay, therefore predictions are made by fuel poverty campaigners to help inform understanding of the issue and its impact. Those recognised by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition are listed in this discussion about methodology to determine these figures.
The depth of fuel poverty is measured by the fuel poverty gap, which is a measure of the additional fuel costs a fuel poor household faces in order to be determined non-fuel poor.
Fuel poverty will be solved through a combination of financial support for households affected, reform of the energy market, improving energy efficiency of homes and a secure, renewables-led, energy system. It will not be solved by plans for hydrogen-based heating systems nor by continuing our reliance on fossil fuels.
The cold facts
- 3.26 million – The official number of households who live in a low income household with poor energy efficiency in England in 2022 (this is the definition the Government measures targets by).
- The estimated number of households affected by fuel poverty across the UK ranges from 4.1m to 7.5m.
- 32% – the number of households in fuel poverty who will not be helped by existing Government support in 2023/24 (CPAG / University of York).
- 7,409 – Average number of winter deaths caused by cold homes.
- Over half of low-income households are still living in energy-leaking homes, with campaigners warning the rate of improvements is well below what is needed to lift people out of fuel poverty by a target date of 2030.
- 1.8 million carers, 5.9 million low-income and financially vulnerable households, 3.6 million people with a disability and 1.6 million households in off-gas homes will all be in fuel poverty from April 2023 (NEA).
- Over 8 million adults will spend 2023/24 in cold damp homes which contributed to worsening public health and pressures on the NHS.
Average household energy bills have been increasing since a low in 2020.
Bills are currently 85% more expensive than in winter 2020/21.
- £1,136 in winter 2018/19 (Ofgem)
- £1,179 in winter 2019/20 (Ofgem)
- £1,042 in winter 2020/21 (Ofgem)
- £1,277 in winter 2021/22 (Ofgem)
- £2,100 in winter 2022/23 (incl. Energy Bill Support Scheme and Energy Price Guarantee)
- £1,932 in winter 2023/24 (Ofgem, from 1 Jan 2024)
Read more about the Ofgem Price Cap levels and predictions for future energy bills here: https://www.endfuelpoverty.org.uk/about-fuel-poverty/ofgem-price-cap/
Ill health and death
- Cold homes can cause and worsen respiratory conditions, cardiovascular diseases, poor mental health, dementia and hypothermia (Institute of Health Equity) as well as cause and slow recovery from injury (PHE).
- Illnesses linked to cold, damp and dangerous homes cost the NHS more than £2.5 billion a year (IHE). This equates to £6.9m a day (up from £3.6m a day in 2016, Kingston).
- Fuel poverty impacts people’s physical health by causing higher levels of inflammation, measured by fibrinogen, a blood-based biomarker. Elevated fibrinogen levels have been strongly linked to higher risk of coronary heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and an increased risk of death (UEA).
- 7,409 winter deaths caused by cold homes in the UK, based on a 10 year average. Excess winter deaths stood at 15,069 people for 2021-22, with 21.5% attributable to living in cold conditions (IHE).
- More broadly, the cost of living crisis caused by energy-linked inflation will see an increase in premature deaths by 5% in the least deprived areas and by 23% in the most deprived (Public Health Scotland).
- Fuel Poverty can also lead to people taking days off work (IPPR).
Harm to mental health
- Two-thirds of people in fuel poverty experience debilitating levels of depression or anxiety (Well Based EU)
- Financial stressors such as being behind on mortgage payments, being heavily indebted, and experiencing fuel payment difficulties also increase the risk of experiencing mental ill health (Curl and Kearns).
- Living in non-decent, cold or overcrowded housing and in unaffordable housing are further key drivers of increased stress and a reduction in a sense of empowerment and control over one’s life, and in turn of depression and anxiety (Gibson et al.).
- Increasing financial pressures are the number one cause affecting mental health and contributing to feelings of anxiety during the winter (Campaign Against Living Miserably).
- In a study of young people aged 11-18, more than one in four were at risk of developing mental health problems, in comparison to 1 in 20 who had a history of living in warm housing (Geddes et al.).
- A report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute highlighted the impact of the cost of living criss on the public’s mental health. One expert by experience told researchers, “I can’t sleep at night for worrying, I keep crying and wonder how I’ll manage to keep going. I’m staying in bed a lot more, even though I’m not sleeping, as I’m scared to go out and spend money, and scared to heat the flat when it’s cold.”
Harm to children
- University College London’s Institute of Health Equity (IHE) predicts ‘a humanitarian crisis’ for children stuck in cold homes and reveals the public health crisis fuel poverty will cause.
- The NHS advises all young children to be kept away from damp and mould, but figures from the Warm This Winter campaign estimate that one in three young families in the UK are stuck in homes with a recurring mould problem.
- A Public Health England report found that cold homes and poor housing conditions have been linked with a range of health problems in children.
- A Childhood
Trust report found that fuel poverty can also have a number of indirect impacts, such as lower rates of educational attainment in school, and a strain upon young people’s mental health.
- The British Medical Journal reports that “children growing up in cold, damp, and mouldy homes with inadequate ventilation have higher than average rates of respiratory infections and asthma, chronic ill health, and disability. They are also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and slower physical growth and cognitive development.”
- £27,000 – Cost to the NHS every day of children experiencing ill-health due to cold homes (NCB)
Harm to disabled people
The energy crisis has a severe effect on the day-to-day lives of many disabled people with a third of disabled adults saying their impairment or condition has a significant impact on their energy costs (all figures from Scope).
- The impact of this is severe, with half of disabled people are not planning to use heating, even when cold, and more than a third cutting back on food and skip meals.
- 28 per cent of disabled people plan to cut back on showering and bathing, and over half said increasing costs were affecting their mental health.
- Nearly 3 million disabled people are facing on average £367 a year shortfall in support, with those facing the highest living costs seeing a shortfall of up to £505.
- A quarter of disabled people are already unable to heat their home. Many are already living in fuel poverty, and those who are not are in danger of being pushed into this.
Links with Covid-19
- Fuel poverty puts households more at risk from the worst effects of Covid-19.
- Public Health England (PHE) have declared that there is “clear evidence on the links between cold temperatures and respiratory problems. Resistance to respiratory infections is lowered by cool temperatures and can increase the risk of respiratory illness.”
- Damp and mould are associated with a 30-50 per cent increase in respiratory problems (Ruse & Garlick, 2018).
- Meanwhile, warm homes enable immune systems to better fight off viruses, improve the likelihood of people with viruses only suffering ‘mild’ symptoms and help improve the recovery process.
- Reducing preventable ill health arising from cold homes will be vital in protecting NHS and care services.
- Households living in the least efficient homes will pay around £916 more per year on energy bills (2022 figures, E3G).
- 1 in 4 pounds spent on heating is wasted (NEF / Great Homes Upgrade).
- If everyone living in homes below Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band C were improved to EPC C today, the aggregate saving would be £10.6bn each year (E3G).
- Insulating homes in Britain and installing heat pumps could benefit the economy by £7bn a year and create 140,000 new jobs by 2030 (Cambridge Econometrics).
- A retrofitting programme could sustain over 400,000 direct jobs and 500,000 indirect jobs by 2030 and over 1.2 million direct jobs and 1.5 indirect jobs by 2050 (IPPR).
- 2030 – The date which the government has set to improve energy efficiency in our homes to help avoid dangerous climate change
- Using already available technology, research indicates countries can increase electricity use for heating processes from roughly 7% to 90% in the case of buildings (IEA), thereby reducing our need for fossil fuels.
- Gas imports can be reduced by 2.6% for every additional 1% in energy savings (European Commission).
- If the whole of the UK was powered by renewables, solar would only use 2.1% of land – roughly the same amount currently used by golf courses (Eden Renewables).