Q&A with Norman Kerr, Director of Energy Action Scotland
Posted on 09/06/2014
Energy Action Scotland (EAS) is a charity that has been campaigning to end fuel poverty in Scotland since 1983. Norman Kerr has been Director of EAS since 2005.
What is fuel poverty and who does it affect?
Fuel poverty is defined as the need to spend 10% or more of income on fuel bills. It is caused by a combination of poor energy-efficiency of the property, low disposable income and the high price of domestic fuel. Although particularly acute in the winter months, it is an everyday reality.
The latest figures (2012) show that 27% of households in Scotland are fuel-poor. The fuel-poor tend to be the elderly, those with disabilities or long-term illnesses and low-income families but, according to the Scottish House Condition Survey, fuel poverty also affects single young adults in poorly paid or part-time jobs.
What are the impacts of fuel poverty?
A recent report by the World Health Organization suggests that around 30% of ‘excess’ winter deaths, meaning those reported over and above the number expected for a given point in the year, are attributable to cold housing. In Scotland this means anything between 600 and 1,500 deaths caused by living in cold, damp homes.
Many of the other effects are very difficult to measure because they are not captured by normal stats. Living in a cold damp home can actually make you withdraw from society - you do not want to invite friends or neighbours around as you cannot afford to put the heating on. If you go to the shopping centres like the Forge in the East End of Glasgow, you see lots of older people who are not shopping but getting their warmth there rather than at home.
Save the Children produced a report a year or two ago that showed for every £1 spent on energy efficiency, there was a benefit to the health service of an additional 42 pence. You’re spending less on medicines associated with living in cold, damp homes – for example, fewer inhalers are needed as warm, dry homes are better for asthmatics.
Research by organisations like the Poverty Alliance shows that low-income households are being forced to choose between heating or eating, buying things like pre-cooked chicken so as not to have to use the oven, and feeding the children but the adults going without. It is also little wonder that children choose to roam the streets rather than be at home when families further resort to only heating one room. This makes inviting friends round to play all but impossible, and impacts on homework too as there is no space in which to complete study.
Why are energy prices so high?
Did you know that the last few price increases have not always had the unit cost of energy go up the most, but rather it has been the daily standing charge, for example rising from 12 pence a day to 30 pence a day (while the unit cost of energy is 14 pence)? If you want to lower your bill you need to reduce your consumption significantly as the rise in the daily standing charge still ensures that the energy company get their money, whether you turn the heating on or not.
The gas and electricity market, in particular the wholesale market, is regulated, but not currently easily understood. The wholesale cost of gas and electricity makes up over 42% of each bill, the single biggest cost on any bill, but it’s not transparent. The generating companies buy and sell fuel several times over in as many months and of course they buy and sell to each other. What is not understood is how much of the 42% is profit, due to the way in which companies produce their accounts.
We’ve seen prices jump over the years since 2002 but EAS believes that the Government energy watchdog Ofgem needs to legislate on the wholesale market, as only then will we really know if the costs are unreasonably high.
EAS also believes that the method for collecting environmental or ‘green’ taxes is regressive and disproportionately affects the poor. Currently, taxation is not determined by either energy usage or ability to pay – it’s a fixed fee per household, irrespective of property size or occupancy. EAS is arguing for it to be stripped from bills and collected via general taxation, but no government wants to raise taxes.
What should a Scottish Government be doing to save lives during the winter months?
The simplest way to support householders is to continue investing in energy efficiency measures and provide grants to vulnerable households for increasing the thermal efficiency of their homes. Holyrood does fund fuel poverty programmes, but the level of funding is inadequate.
EAS suggested in 2006 that the Scottish Government needed to spend £200 million a year over 10 years to reach its fuel poverty target, but this level of spending has not been realised in any year since we made our recommendation. In 2013, however, the Government said there would at last be £200 million to spend on energy efficiency, but £120 million of this would be coming out of revenue generated by the regressive environmental tax I mentioned earlier on.
The Scottish Government needs to better regulate energy efficiency improvements made to existing housing. The private rented sector in Scotland has the poorest performing housing stock in terms of energy efficiency and a disproportionately high percentage of fuel-poor households. Despite ensuring that grants for energy efficiency measures are available, the sector still lags significantly behind the social housing sector.
The answer is to regulate this sector and make it illegal to rent out a home if it falls below a minimum standard. The Government’s plan for ‘some kind of regulation’ by 2018 is woefully lacking in ambition and effectively condemns thousands of families to continued misery.
Did you know that it’s possible to build a house without the need to install any kind of heating system because the walls and windows are sufficiently well insulated that the property can be heated by the ambient heat, i.e. body heat, of its occupants and appliances? Though of course, most homes are not built to this standard. If we want to meet our carbon targets, if we want to eradicate fuel poverty, then building homes that work against these commitments is counter-productive.
Are energy-efficient appliances an important part of the solution; if so, how do we get more into homes?
Yes, appliances are definitely a part of the solution and we have come a long way in efficiency of appliances; it is very hard to buy a poorly-rated appliance anymore. EU legislation has sorted that and of course our own building standards have driven up the efficiency of boilers – new boilers are over 90% efficient, using a third less gas than older models. But the rub is that lower income families do not buy new white goods, they buy second hand fridges and freezers; the ones that are energy inefficient.
And remember that today’s home is now designed to use more electrical energy, with an ever-expanding range of gadgets and appliances on the market. It’s worth noting that if you do not have a lot of disposable income then you do not go out for your entertainment; for some, large, energy-hungry television sets are their source of entertainment. Though a lot of people on a very tight budget will be able to tell you the exact cost of having the television on for a couple of hours – it won’t necessarily be on all the time.
Do low-income homeowners have enough ‘know-how’ on energy saving (e.g. putting a lid on your saucepan, washing up in a bowl not under running water) or is all this a mere drop in the ocean?
Many low-income households know to the penny how to use energy effectively, but lots still do not. There is a great deal of work needed to deliver changes in behaviour. For example, most people over-heat their water and that costs money. EAS believes that there are times when people are more receptive to advice. We have worked with McMillan Cancer Care to deliver training to their benefit advisors on all of these energy-saving measures, plus advice on paying the right tariff and so on. The impact has been staggering.
This is an excellent example of using what EAS calls ‘trusted intermediaries’ to deliver advice to people. Other examples might be a social worker or a midwife. EAS did a really great project with Arbroath Maternity called “Give your Child a Warm Start in Life”. We would love to see every health professional, as part of their initial or ongoing training, do a short module in health, housing and fuel poverty.
What does the future hold?
You can be a climate change sceptic or say that global warming is a good thing if grapes will grow in Dunoon, but whatever you believe we are seeing a change in weather patterns that means our winters might be milder and our summers might be warmer or cooler. It is likely that in a wetter climate, householders will need to have their heating on for longer. This is the case in Ireland where they have a much damper climate so their heating season is longer; this is probably going to be the case in Scotland as we move forward in time.
But I do not believe in problems; a problem is only an opportunity to rise to a challenge, so I’m always optimistic. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be in this job. We have many things that we can do now, both at Westminster and Holyrood, to tackle fuel poverty and provide warm, dry, affordable fuel to run homes for everyone. My job and that of EAS is to convince our politicians that they can make a difference and to rise to the challenges before them. It’s not that big an ask, is it?
Written by Anya Hart Dyke,
Freelance Writer & Researcher - Rural Affairs/Sustainability/Equality & Integration