Chart 4.3 in a 2011 DECC report showed that the West Midlands had highest rate of fuel poverty with around 26% of households requiring to spend more than 10% of their income on fuel to maintain an adequate level of warmth. A Chamberlain Forum article confirms that this position has been maintained, with a slight percentage decrease.
LWM’s ‘all time’ top individual post was in the website’s Activities section. Solving fuel poverty: opportunities from Green Deal and localisation was published in December two years ago and, because of the interest shown, Phil Beardmore sent the following update about action on fuel poverty:
Although there has been some limited progress in tackling fuel poverty in the last twelve months, this has been largely wiped out by the rising cost of fuel and the reduction in incomes for the poorest people. A welcome development has been the availability of ECO (Energy Company Obligation) funding at up to 100% for vulnerable households – those low-income households with children, and/or frail, elderly, disabled members.
Although a brokerage system is being developed by DECC which will give new players such as the Energy Saving Coop access to ECO for local schemes, by and large ECO is controlled by the Big Six and it is likely that they will continue to cherry-pick where and when it is spent.
One of the factors affecting cherry-picking is the ease, or otherwise, with which it is possible to get planning permission for external solid wall insulation. We note that whereas there has been widespread delivery of this measure in Wolverhampton and Stoke, including on more attractive pre-1919 properties in areas such as All Saints in Wolverhampton, it has been patchy in Birmingham. While there has been widespread use of external wall insulation on less attractive inter-war properties in areas such as Bordesley Green and Northfield, it has proved more difficult to get planning permission in areas such as Handsworth and Sparkbrook, where there are more attractive facades like the one on my house. We know of one insulation scheme which has under-delivered due to uncertainties over the length of time to get planning permission, if it is granted at all. It seems that Planning Officers and utility companies have both dug in over their respective positions.
There are two sides to every story and this is no exception. Some utility companies have made no secret of the fact that they prefer to invest in energy saving measures in cities and countries that colloborate with them; local authority officers understandably point to the statutory constraints under which they operate. Birmingham City Council has expressed a very general support for sustainable development in the Birmingham Development Plan. This now needs to turn into action, moving away from the current presumption that ambitious carbon reduction targets will reduce property values and undermine economic growth in the city, a view that is a legacy of some sections of the previous administration. This means working with the energy efficiency industry, rather than against it, to deliver solutions to issues such as solid wall insulation and solar panels that enable us to have buildings fit for the 21st century while conserving our built heritage.
The Green Commission, of which I am a member, faces an urgent task in holding senior officers to account in implementing Sir Albert Bore’s expressed wish for Birmingham to be one of the greenest cities in the world. No longer can Birmingham issue declarations and strategies which are ignored at Director level, making it impossible to implement them.
It seems that Birmingham Energy Savers will be largely focussed on ECO funding, along with short-lived early adopter cash from DECC, for the near future, and that this will lead to significant energy efficiency improvements for many thousands of the poorest homes in Birmingham.
Carillion Energy Services, who have won the Birmingham Energy Savers contract, are also being true to their word so far in enabling local small businesses and the third sector to be part of its delivery. In this respect, we can cautiously say that Birmingham Energy Savers is showing great promise so far.
What isn’t clear is the degree to which Green Deal – i.e. where measures that cannot be grant-funded are paid for through a pay-as-you-save approach – will take off in Birmingham or elsewhere, and it may be that the current DECC consultation on Electricity Demand Reduction contains proposals which will work better than Green Deal, for the better-off at least, and ultimately succeed it.
Meanwhile the Energy Saving Coop and community development financial institutions such as the Robert Owen Community Bank seem to be most advanced in finding fair and ethical alternatives.
Tackling fuel poverty isn’t just about energy efficiency measures – it is now more than a decade since LWM associate Pat Conaty in a report for NEF/OFGEM pointed out that fuel poverty had multiple causes and needed multiple solutions – energy saving measures; energy advice; income maximisation; bill payment facilities – a Factor Four approach. There is a will to implement this approach but the funding streams don’t work together. ECO will fund measures but not currently advice (although we are assured by DECC that it could); people can fund income maximisation measures through the Warm Homes, Healthy Communities fund but this is discretionary and time-limited; collective energy switching schemes will be launched in a number of locations early in the New Year, and some, but not all of these, will be tailored to the fuel poor as I advocated some months ago.
There are many wilful, determined individuals out there, in the private sector and the public sector as well as the third sector, trying to make a difference to fuel poverty. These initiatives help a great many people but when the Chancellor announces in the Autumn Statement that we are going to become more reliant on ever more expensive and dangerous fossil fuels, then the cost of energy is going to rise more drastically, and energy efficiency will become even more important than ever.