Fuel poverty: an economic win-win?

Fuel poverty: an economic win-win? by Damian Burton 

We’ve just concluded some work with AGMA providing a strategic appraisal of where Greater Manchester stands regarding fuel poverty and where it goes next.

The stats around fuel poverty in the city-region are well-known and depressing: one in five households affected, fuel tariffs increasing, spikes of excess winter deaths. The Greater Manchester Energy Advice Service tells of householders having to choose between heating or eating, whilst the recent findings of the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission show that wider deprivation, income poverty, child poverty and food poverty are also increasing.

These trends inevitably have a particularly negative effect on those already exposed to, or on the margins of, fuel poverty: complex families, families with children, single people, the elderly and those on low incomes. The result is increased deprivation, poor physical & mental health and social exclusion; the outcome is a rising demand for health, welfare and social services.

Although the city-region can point to some cracking projects to address such problems, actually finding those in fuel poverty remains incredibly difficult. And dealing with these issues is set to become a more complex business as public sector austerity measures and national welfare reforms take shape. So where do we go next?

Well, the only game in town is the well-intentioned but complicated Energy Company Obligation, hampered by its means-testing and greater expense relative to previous home energy efficiency programmes. Are we going to see reduced referral numbers at a time when we need to be seeing more? Perhaps. And is simply improving the fabric of our buildings going to eliminate fuel poverty? In many cases, no.

There are also some fundamental reforms to the UK’s healthcare architecture to deal with – the demise of the Primary Care Trusts, the rise of the Clinical Commissioning Groups, and the conferring of public health duties onto local authorities. How will fuel poverty feature in this new landscape?

AGMA are now taking stock of these issues in order to address growing concerns seen right across the city-region. What is clear is that fuel poverty is a drag on the economy which acts to the detriment of wider economic interventions. Fuel poverty is addressed as a welfare issue, but we ought to stop pretending that it isn’t the economic albatross it evidently is. Shouldn’t any issue which degrades the quality & quantity of our workforce and generates needless health, welfare and social care costs be considered a strategic economic priority? If we continue to kid ourselves that fuel poverty isn’t an economic priority, we have to accept that, directly or indirectly, five in five households will continue picking up the bill somewhere.