The fabric of Britain as we know it is being ripped apart. So much is changing, almost behind our backs, we haven't got time to notice what is happening to us. And it is happening fast.

Friday, 30 December 2011

On The Sixth Day of Xmas, My True Love Gave To Me... A Lifetime of Fuel Poverty

I offered to write this blog based on my personal experience of living in “fuel poverty” and because we are about to have these new “smart meters” fitted.  I wanted the opportunity to explore precisely what a “smart meter” is and how it would impact on our family; hopefully alleviating our personal circumstances. What I found instead, was that we won’t ever lose the designation of “fuel poverty” living in our council flat and that the risks of smart meters currently outweigh any potential benefit they might have. 

The general definition of fuel poverty, the one encouraged by the media, is any household, which spends at least 10% of its income on heating. Whilst this basic definition does make for good headlines, it obscures just how many families are actually living in fuel poverty and how, precisely, we define the term. For once, the government’s definition is by far the best (pdf link)

A household is said to be in fuel poverty if it needs to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to maintain a satisfactory heating regime (usually 21 degrees for the main living area, and 18 degrees for other occupied rooms). The “Fuel poverty ratio” is therefore defined as: Fuel poverty ratio = fuel costs (modelled usage x price) ÷ income.

What the government really means is the following factors:
  1. Income Indicators:
    1. Disposable income
    2. Proportion of children, working age adults and pensioners living in households with low incomes (absolute and relative).
    3. Winter fuel payments
    4. Cold weather payments.
  2. Fuel Price Indicators:
    1. Actual expenditure on fuel as a percentage of the total income of the lowest 30% income groups.
    2. Fuel prices
    3. Number of customers on prepayment meters.
    4. Fuel debt.
    5. Customers switching suppliers.
  3.  Housing Indicators:
    1. Energy efficiency of the housing stock of the lowest 30% of income groups.
    2. Occupancy levels
    3. Excess winter deaths
    4. Expenditure on, and number of households helped through Warm Front
    5. Uptake of the Carbon Emission Reduction Target
    6. Local Authority housing investment on energy efficiency improvements. 

Obviously, this can be subsumed into three easier-to-digest points and more media-friendly: “the energy efficiency of the property (and therefore, the energy required to heat and power the home), the cost of energy, and household income”but actually seeing that the government includes “excess winter deaths” is a starker reminder of what society actually means by fuel poverty. It isn’t the inability to keep your living room a constant 21 degrees. It’s the inability to heat your house and the impact that can have on your very survival. It’s also about the failure of society to ensure that housing isn’t damp, poorly insulated with little or no heating.  The cuts to benefits, tax credits and rising unemployment will result in more families living in fuel poverty.  It is the simple formula of decreasing income = increasing fuel poverty.


Under these guidelines, I live in fuel poverty; not because we spend 10% of our income on heating but, rather, because our council house is so badly insulated and draught-proofed that turning the heating on is a waste of energy and money. Instead, I am writing this blog whilst wearing long underwear, two sweaters and a dressing gown and today isn’t particularly cold or windy. 

This is the reality for millions of households across the UK; academic and media discourse on “fuel poverty” simply doesn’t cover the real problems. It doesn’t change the fact that our main source of “heat” is one storage heater in the living room, which hasn’t worked for two years and neither our local council nor our energy provider will take responsibility for it being broken. 

Instead, we use oil radiators that we bought from Amazon in place of the 2 small fan heaters the council grudgingly supplied last winter after 3 weeks of daily complaints. 2 small fan heaters won’t warm up a bathroom, never mind a 2-bed council flat, which has failed every energy inspection going. [On the infrared scanners of our building, every flat turns up bright red. Bright red means we have no energy efficiency whatsoever]. To be fair, we do have panel heaters in the bedroom and if you sit next to them, you can stay warmish but, really, how are 4 people supposed to function if they can’t move more than 5 feet from the radiator without several layers of clothing?

         We are lucky insofar as we can afford to purchase the necessary layers of fleece undergarments and dressing gowns to keep warm. Many of the people living in fuel poverty, including a large number of neighbours on fixed pensions or benefits, have neither the cash nor the resources to keep warm. Warm Front, a government grant program, can help those who live in England and meet the qualifying benefits with purchasing loft insulation, draught proofing, or cavity wall insulation. 

Our flat is built out of cement. There is no way to add cavity wall insulation [and clearly no loft]. We cannot have gas central heating as our building has more floors than legally allowed for gas central heating. We are lucky as we live in Scotland and the Scottish government has, through their devolved powers, created a much stricter definition of fuel poverty [which accounts for the greater numbers of people living in Scotland (pdf) who are classed as living in fuel poverty than in England or Wales] but have also put into place policies for homelessness and fuel poverty which have resulted in our building being signed up for a pilot of a new heating system that should make our flat warmer for less money. 

However, these fabulous new policies are dependent on the proper implementation by local authorities. In the current upgrade of our new heating system, 15 flats have been left with no heating for months and no one taking responsibility for what is clearly a cock-up of epic proportions [or a level of incompetence generally only seen in sit-coms].

We also don’t meet the guidelines for a “vulnerable” (pdf) household [depending on who actually writes the definition of vulnerable].I would have thought a severely asthmatic child would cut it but she aged out on her 5th birthday [but failed to age out of the asthma clinic at the same time. I’m with her asthma consultant on this and not the civil servant who came up with such an arbitrary number]. 

Technically, I have a disability but it isn’t severe enough to count for purposes of the DLA so I don’t meet the criteria either even though my disability is worsened when my joints are cold, and, let’s face it, in rainy Scotland that’s an all the time occurrence. We are all under the age of retirement so don’t count that way. The guidelines also don’t take into account the very gendered (pdf) nature of poor heating; specifically on post-menopausal women who do not regulate the body temperature as efficiently as other adults.

         Our storage heaters, supposedly the most “energy-efficient and cheap to run” of heating systems are absolutely useless. They presume an adult in the house all day, one who goes to bed at 7 pm, just as the heat starts to fade before recharging over-night. Granted, it is cheaper to store the heat at night but I don’t go to bed at 7 pm and there is no point in having a warm house during the day, as the only occupant is a cat who possesses a fur coat. 

We are not, however, the not-so-proud owners of pre-payment meters: households with prepayment (pdf) meters are more likely live in fuel poverty as those without gas heating.  Prepayment meters have traditionally been installed in houses for debt management; rather than disconnection but they are the most expensive way to manage energy with built-in above-the-odds administration costs and a base price higher than average. Many vulnerable families have shown a preference for pre-payment meters because of the ability to manage energy consumption more effectively but charging these families a higher rate ensures that more families (pdf) with prepayment meters are living in fuel poverty than families not.

At least these old-school prepayment meters did have the safety measure of requiring court orders to be forcibly installed into households while there was also some attempt to hold energy companies liable for providing energy to vulnerable households. The new generation “smart meters” are smart in name-only.

Ignoring the other major problems with smart meters, which includes their susceptibility to cyber-attack (pdf) at an unprecedented scale and the problems with data protection and privacy, the number one problem for consumers is the remote “off” switch which means energy companies can switch customers to prepayment tariffs without the intervention of the courts or any real outside monitoring agency. (pdf)

This assumes that the household is genuinely in arrears and not, as many of us know to our misfortune, that the energy supplier is completely incompetent in terms of actually managing billing and double-checking potential typos where a household ends up with a bill for £456 987 a month. [Or, in my personal case, where the energy supplier had copied the wrong identity numbers on every storage heater in our previous flat wherein I was being charged for the hallway lighting and not my personal consumption. 

It took 3 years and 17 phones calls to Scottish Power to sort this out. In the end, I got a thank you card, another 4 years down the line, for bringing this “minor fault” to their attention].The secondary purposes of smart meters, and ones I have yet to hear mentioned in our council communications concerning their installation in our flat includes “supporting interruptible tariffs and implementing rolling power cuts (pdf) at times of supply shortage."

What this actually means is that it allows energy companies more freedom to charge customers variable rates without too much intervention. Rolling power-cuts are self-explanatory in their problems.

I am so incensed by the failure of our council to adequately explain what these “smart meters” really do [and the not insignificant fact that I don’t trust my local council to plant a tree without cocking it up spectacularly], I think its more appropriate to quote  [and paraphrase some of the answers of Mumsnetter Tianc, who has read all of these documents]:

1) Smart Meters will have an In-Home Display (IHD) so the consumer can easily see how much power they are consuming.
a.       The technology already exists, is a lot cheaper and lacks the evil “off-switch.”
2.  Smart Meters will probably create a record of your power usage at half-hourly intervals:
a.       Why do we need this information and who does it actually benefit? It’s not the consumer in terms of “accurate monthly bills” so what are the real implications for privacy and personal security?
3.  Power companies claim Smart Meters will help them manage three specific pressures:
a.       Power companies and DECC would like to curb total consumer demand for power. Smart Meters are unnecessary to do this (although accurate monthly billing would help)
b.      Electricity companies would like to smooth loads by shifting demand way from peak times. Half-hourly Smart Meters might enable them to influence consumers through Time-of-Use tariffs. Smart Meters plus HANs may allow the companies to control switch-off of your appliances.
c.        Apart from Economy 7, the price consumers pay doesn’t directly reflect the wholesale price so electricity suppliers carry risk when they buy. They’d like to shed this risk by passing on price changes, using half-hourly Smart Meter data.

4.  The Smart Grid is intended be an end-to-end control system, where power to individual devices and sockets in your smart house can be remotely controlled from the other end of the network by you, the power companies or third parties.
a.   A Smart Grid is a control system allowing appliances in your house to be remotely controlled by you, the power companies and anyone who can gain access to the Smart Grid. The power companies plan to use this to switch off your appliances at peak times, because this is cheaper and on, the face of it, more energy efficient that providing adequate peak supply.
b.   Smart Grids are a massive new vulnerability in critical infrastructure. They are profoundly vulnerable to hacking at all levels, from script kiddies to hostile states. They are also vulnerable to software error and failure of multiple apps to interoperate smoothly. The consequences of a software failure or attack or could be anything from your house burning down to sudden, catastrophic failure of critical national infrastructure.

This brilliant thread, which became a Mumsnet Classic, is a much funnier example of the general incompetence of energy suppliers. 

The conclusion here is pretty simple: 

1) cuts to benefits are going to result in more families living in fuel poverty 

 2) smart meters won’t help alleviate fuel property; in fact they are most likely going to make it worse [and that’s ignoring the whole cyber-attack issue which has me contemplating purchasing a Yurt somewhere warm]. 

The fuel poverty that already exists in the UK is utterly shameful but it will only get worse as energy companies get richer by increasing the prices and household incomes drop dramatically. 

Smart metering only gives energy companies more power to hurt vulnerable families economically. It doesn’t alleviate fuel poverty and it certainly doesn’t make it easier for consumers to cut their energy bills [cyber-attacks certainly won’t help the financial stability of consumers and rolling power-outages will effect vulnerable families more dramatically].

So, we are now stuck in a situation where more vulnerable people will have to make the choice between heating their homes and buying food; a pattern already emerging in our council flats as elderly residents are very concerned about the billing of our new “smart-meters” and are choosing not to turn on their heat at all. How many other vulnerable families will be making this choice this year as their tax credits, DLA, and other benefits are cut.

Of course, the new ConDems aren’t willing to recognise the actual reality of the lives of those living in fuel poverty [after all cutting DLA will dramatically impact those living in fuel poverty]; they have commissioned a report in 2010 which may redefine fuel poverty,  conveniently decreasing the actual number of people living in fuel poverty but doesn’t appearing to address the effect that their own cuts will have on families.

Granted this report, entitled Fuel Poverty: The Problem and Its Measurement, does acknowledge that fuel poverty is real and that it has severe negative impact on the health and well-being of the residents of the UK but it is also quite obviously a defence of the cuts to the most vulnerable and not a policy on increasing assistance. Apparently we have more “excess winter deaths” than other countries with colder climates; I’m not entirely sure we should be celebrating a decrease from 40 000 deaths in the 1970s to 27 000 deaths now. 

27 000 people dying each year simply because of “winter” is simply disgraceful. Personally, I worry about my neighbours surviving more than I care about the deficit. This is the consequence of the cuts: the very real harm to very real people that the ConDems are glossing over in favour of tax cuts for their wealthy friends.


For Help with Fuel Poverty:

For Further Information on Fuel Poverty:

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  1. I didn't know anything about smart meters until I read this. Scary. I am glad you have enlightened me with this brilliant post.

  2. Thank you for a great article. I'm in council housing too, with an energy rating of 'E'. All electric, with night storage heaters. There's only myself and my son in a two bed house and as I am currently on benefits (I'm working my way through college on a part-time degree course with totally insufficient funding by the way......)the actual income we are trying to manage on is small indeed. The council say we are entitled to have two bedrooms (one for me, one for my 8 year old son)but the income I receive is totally inadequate to heat these rooms to the 'recommended' level.
    I recently resisted my energy companies attempts to put in a prepayment metre because I didn't want to be in the vulnerable place of being 'cut off' if for some reason we ran out of money that week.
    I'm currently arguing with them to try to get them to agree to a fixed monthly payment which helps me spread by fuel costs evenly over the year. They don't like this of course as it means I 'go into debt' during the winter months before catching up over the summer months.

  3. I'm confused about the 'excess winter deaths' figure. I've seen it quoted as both 2,700 and 27,000 in various articles relating to effects of fuel poverty. Which is the correct one? Can anyone point me in the direction of a ref for this?
    Thank you

  4. Finally, an issue that I am passionate about. I have looked for information of this caliber for the last several hours. Your site is greatly appreciated.chemical peel utah


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