Fighting fuel poverty - from the frontline

"Visited one client recently who has been living in their home for 40 years. The central heating had broken down and she has been living in the property with no heating or hot water for at least the last year. She has no savings and not on the benefits needed to apply for NEST. Social Services have been in touch with Care & Repair to see if we can support this lady. I went there, the house is riddled with damp and the only form of heating is a small electric heater and fan heater. For hot water, she boils kettle and has a wash down daily."

Care & Repair believes that all older people in Wales should be able to live independently in safe, warm, accessible homes. And, whilst we have a strong reputation for improving the safety and accessibility of older people's homes, the work we do improving their warmth is less widely recognised but equally, life-savingly vital.

Because older people are at higher risk of fuel poverty than any other age group in Wales. Our own client group, older people in the private housing sector and on little more than the state pension, are living in the coldest, dampest, hardest-to-heat homes in Wales.

Newly published fuel poverty estimates for Wales show that:

  • pensioner households account for 43% of fuel poor homes;
  • one in five of all single pensioners and one in five pensioners over the age of 75 are in fuel poverty;
  • two in three fuel poor households are owner occupied and one in four privately rented;
  • three quarters of fuel poor households are receiving a means-tested benefit such as Pension Credit.

Older people in private housing are at greatest risk of both fuel poverty and the consequential harm. They spend 70-90% of their time at home. They are more vulnerable to the health risks of living in a cold home - respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, stroke, reduced mobility, arthritis, stress and mental ill health.

They are also at greatest risk of dying as a result of their fuel poverty. In 2017/18, the number of excess winter deaths almost doubled, mostly affecting older people. 3,400 people died in Wales where the UK regional index was highest. The World Health Organisation attributes a third of such deaths to the consequences of living in a cold damp home.

Thankfully, this year has seen a new sense of energy in Wales' fuel poverty policy arena. Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths' decision to update the Welsh Government's 9 year old Strategy has triggered a whole chain of fuel poverty policy-related reactions on the part of the Welsh Government, Wales Audit Office, National Assembly, Fuel Poverty Coalition Cymru and more - and we have been share our frontline experience.

Care & Repair agencies are in older people's homes on a daily basis. They witness, first hand, the difficulties older people have keeping warm and well. They know the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in the support available to them. And, as part of our Energy Redress Scheme 'Fighting Fuel Poverty' project, we asked our local teams to record and reflect what they see. Their responses and photographs have given us the powerful evidence on which we are basing our contributions to the fuel poverty debate in Wales.

Most recently, the National Assembly's Committee on Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Fuel Poverty Inquiry asked some big, scopey questions, in answer to which we had much to say on:

  • the wide-spread and complex nature of older people's fuel poverty in Wales, the debilitating impacts in terms of lifestyle, physical health and mental wellbeing, the self-perpetuating consequences for the very fabric of older people's homes – and, for our frailer older people, the sheer impossibility of tackling their situation;
  • the many ways in which the Welsh Government's Warm Homes Programme has helped to combat fuel poverty - and the many more ways in which its component schemes, Nest and Arbed, need improvement to ensure the accessibility, effectiveness and quality of delivery for our most vulnerable older people;
  • the need for a renewed policy and financial investment in the depreciating national asset that is Wales' existing private housing stock. It comprises 82% of all homes, is where 81% of our older people live and 90% of it will still be in use in 2050, by which time all our housing needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions. Yet private housing is the least thermally efficient and most fuel poor of housing tenures and its retrofitting fortunes almost entirely dependent on those of its home owners. The older people with whom we work are simply unequal to shouldering that responsibility alone

The Welsh Government's 2010 Fuel Poverty Strategy had ambition and Wales has moved some way towards its target of eradicating fuel poverty but still fallen a long way short. The complexity of the challenge was underestimated, so too the critical importance of a sustained, methodological and integrated approach.

A new civil service team is in place and has worked hard to ensuring the contribution of third sector stakeholders, Care & Repair included, to the new Plan's development. That approach has the potential to lay secure foundations for the committed, collaborative working that is required if fuel poverty is to be tackled effectively.
Which it really must be. There should be no place in modern Wales for cold damp homes, that kill.

You can read our submission to the Committee's Inquiry in full here. We're looking forward to its final report and then responding to the Welsh Government's draft Plan. That's due for consultation in the New Year and, already, we know we still have much to say.

Juliet Morris