As we head into the autumn the cost of heating our homes will soon become an even bigger issue. Government figures released for 2009 showed that over one fifth of all UK households were suffering from fuel poverty at that time, with higher fuel bills meaning that the number affected rose by 1 million (22%) to 5.5 million. Utility bills have continued their meteoric rise since then, so the problem will undoubtedly be even worse now. Some estimates predict that by the end of 2011 the problem will have affected 6.5 million households.
Fuel poverty is a phrase that is heard a lot these days, but what exactly is it? Fuel poverty is defined as when more than 10% of the household income goes on keeping warm. These statistics probably won’t worry Wayne and Colleen much but they make scary reading for us mere mortals; between 2004 and 2009 electricity prices rose by over 75% and the price of gas rose by a staggering 122%. Just in case that wasn’t enough, there have been a number of price hikes since, the largest of which have come in the summer of 2011, with the big six energy providers increasing their prices by anything up to 18%.
The climate minister, Greg Barker, has admitted that the figures are unacceptable – but what does he intend to do about it? Is he going to reign in the utility companies? It doesn’t sound like it: “The fact is that in the UK [homes] are amongst the most expensive to heat in Europe, yet we don’t have the most expensive gas and energy prices. Next year [we start] the most ambitious home improvement since the Second World War, where we’re not just putting a bit of lagging in people’s lofts, but [will] transform on a whole house basis, millions of homes over the next decade.”
Prior to 2004, the problem had been in decline, with fuel poverty across the UK dropping from 6.5 million homes to just under 2 million in 2003, due to a combination of rising incomes and drops in energy tariffs. Despite increased effort and Government money being put into insulating homes to make them more energy efficient, any benefits have been negated by crucifying rises in energy prices. When breaking down the overall fuel poverty statistic, another worrying one comes out; most of the fuel poverty homes come into the ‘vulnerable’ bracket, i.e. homes containing the elderly, children and those containing someone who is disabled or someone suffering from a long term illness. The total figure for England contains 71% in this broad category.
It would seem that until the energy companies’ free reign over pricing policies is limited in some way, there can be little progress on the issue.