Fuel poverty becoming “a national health emergency”, NEA chief warns energy campaigners


Britain’s shame as table-topper of Europe’s worst insulated homes is already causing a health emergency of mental health stress and respiratory diseases, London campaigners heard last night.

Two raises – this month and again in October – of Ofgem’s cap on retail tariffs for light and heat, both certain to be above 50%, will inflict unprecedented distress, amid complaints from activists about too short, over-complicated and poorly communicated relief schemes from the government.

Peter Smith of National Energy Action was addressing members last night of Community Energy London, lobbyists and information clearing house for the capital’s 30 or so volunteer-run energy co-operatives.

Advice delivered locally to increasing numbers of people in fuel poverty is the twin activity delivered by almost all co-ops engaged in local production of renewable power.

The NEA’s Smith told CEL activists about “Irene”, a single lady who was assisted by SELCE, south east London’s volunteers in anti-fuel poverty outreach.

The NEA boss related how, when Irene walked into SELCE’s volunteer-run advice centre in Woolwich, the unemployed lady had £10 in her bank account, no food in her fridge, and was suffering from several health problems including hearing loss, arthritis, depression, diabetes and shortness of breath.

Universal Credit was failing to cover Irene’s basic living costs, the NEA boss told the meeting. It certainly didn’t cover heating her draughty home with a 40-year-old boiler.

SELCE  assisted Irene, registering her for installation of a new boiler through a priority scheme.

The charity’s volunteers helped the claimant negotiate a morass of fragmented benefits, securing Warm Home Discount of £140 a year and a Watersure Plus discount yielding a further £220.

Switching energy suppliers brought in another £357 a year, boosted by £150 more through advice on energy use and lighting.  Representations to Irene’s council boosted Universal Credit relief on her council tax by another £800 a year

This year’s double whammy of price rises will yield plenty more Irenes, according to Nadia Smith, experienced for three years a project manager and for two years a director at SELCE.

“The situation is absolutely terrible. We are constantly getting phone calls from people who’ve lost their jobs through Covid, and are terrified they are going to get caught in fuel poverty” said the SELCE director.

Government steps in supposed remedy were dogged by their short existence, lack of publicity, and complicated and changing eligibility criteria, SELCE’s Smith added.   The Warm Homes Discount, trumpeted by chancellor Sunak, was one such.

Too many schemes were counter-productive in their short duration, with some being cancelled by Whitehall before their budgets were spent, said Smith, citing the Green Homes grant.

Local authorities were more effective than central government in delivering help, but fuel poverty needs were still “enormous and growing”, she believes.

SELCE’s Smith cited research from grass-roots think-tank the New Economics Foundation. Researchers there found that a £10 billion long term programme to retro-fit Britain’s leaky homes would pay for itself in just seven years, even on a narrow basis of health savings to the NHS budget alone.

Syed Ahmed, convenor of Community Energy London, today confirmed the body had secured worth £20,000 for six months from the Greater London Authority, to fund a co-ordinator to work exclusively in combatting fuel poverty.

Michael Lewis, head of E-On told MPs last week that 40% of households could be in fuel poverty by 2023, without more extensive, better communicated government subsidy.

His near-namesake Martin Lewis, TV’s Money Saving Expert, warned last week about dire effects on mental health impending with the October rise.


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