When we connected that afternoon, neither of us knew where to start. I was working as the principal domestic energy officer at Ealing Council, managing the council’s affordable warmth and energy efficiency programmes, and my map showed the areas of the borough where residents lived in fuel poverty, defined as spending more than 10 per cent of annual income on heating and energy costs.
The recommendations that Maddy and I sent to the executive board and cabinet were for increased cross-working between the housing and repairs teams and our NHS colleagues, working to identify cases where the temperature of the home was a likely contributing factor to hospital admissions and chronic respiratory illnesses. GPs, home nurses, and hospital intake teams are invaluable assets in the fight against fuel poverty as they are on the front line. However, most healthcare professionals are unlikely to ask about insulation and heating as part of a routine surgery visit. Training is required to ensure that the effects of fuel poverty on health are well understood and that NHS staff can spot the clues that signify a patient may be living in fuel poverty, as well as where to sign-post suspected cases.
Tania Jennings is the Chair of the Association of Local Energy Officers – London
Before Covid, we believed that fuel poverty’s impacts on health and life expectancy were hard to verify and that the evidential symptoms, such as damp, mould, and overheating have slow, immeasurable effects. The pandemic showed the reality to be quite different. Respiratory and circulatory illnesses are significantly increased in the residents of poorly insulated, under or over-heated homes, especially those with carbon-based heating systems and those where damp and mould are present. And, when a global respiratory illness comes knocking on a poorly insulated door, the impacts are immediate and quantifiable. Fuel poverty kills, and it does not always take its time.
Inequality in the built environment was one of the biggest factors in survivability during the Covid pandemic. People living in affluent areas were 50 per cent less likely to die of Covid-19; black and minority ethnic communities were four times as likely to die than people of white ethnicity. It is no surprise that areas with the highest rates of fuel poverty tend to be populated by ethnic minorities and immigrants, as rents in poorly insulated buildings tend to be lower, though energy costs are higher.
The March 2022 report was called Covid-19 Inequalities Integrated Impact Assessment and it quantified the loss of 1,000 of Ealing’s residents and the long-term effects on the borough’s healthcare infrastructure. I expected a hard read but not to be sat at my desk an hour later, wiping away tears as I stared at the map on the screen. I emailed the report’s author, Dr Maddy Gupta-Wright from Ealing Council’s Public Health team, saying: ‘I’ve attached Ealing’s fuel poverty map. Open it and call me when you can. It’s the same map.’
There is a shared duty of care among the housing sector to ensure that we are not designing or permitting homes to be built or retrofitted that will create fuel poverty. And yet, plans come across my desk every day that scrape at the bottom of the minimum energy efficiency requirements, presenting every plausible excuse for not meeting on-site generation and low-carbon heating system requirements. These homes will create generational fuel poverty, further eroding trust in government as residents are locked into electrified heating systems with high operational costs or carbon-based fuel systems which will affect long-term health and contribute to climate breakdown.
In 2021, the borough’s fuel poverty hovered around 16.8 per cent of homes, with some areas as high as 30 per cent. Today, thanks to the combined energy and cost of living crisis, those figures have nearly doubled. Maddy’s map showed the areas where Covid infections and deaths were most concentrated. Horrific strokes of red covered the same wards on both maps, a tragic vindication of what we knew to be true: Fuel Poverty makes people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses. What an understatement.
The government must recommit itself to funding wide-scale energy efficiency improvements to all homes in the UK, 90 per cent of which are heated by gas and are excluded from accessing the Sustainable Warmth Fund, and to prioritise fuel poverty reduction and education programmes. The solutions to improve health, the economy, and the nation’s energy security go hand in hand. It’s the same damned map.
Decarbonisation funding from government remains focused on economic recovery, but fuel poverty reduction is reliably included in the list of desired outcomes. The most efficient way to mitigate fuel poverty is to insulate homes, electrify heating systems, and install solar PV. However, electrification without fabric improvements or onsite energy generation exacerbates fuel poverty. Likewise, solar PV on a Swiss cheese house reduces the cost of heating one’s garden, it does not improve health or thermal comfort. A whole-house retrofit approach is vital to creating lasting, replicable solutions.
Building code and planning frameworks determine the minimum energy efficiency of housing for decades to come, setting today’s knee-jerk political decisions in regulatory stone which takes several election cycles to overturn, wasting time we do not have. Influence over privately owned homes increased somewhat post-lockdown as local authorities were tasked with designing and delivering retrofit programmes aimed at low-income private households on behalf of national government, which for all its faults, has recognised that local solutions are key to wide-scale retrofit.