The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released statistics last week showing that 700,000 more families in the UK became fuel poor in 2009. This meant 5.5 million or one in five of all households needed to spend more than 10% of income maintaining an adequate level of warmth.
This month, both British Gas and Scottish Power announced significant increases to fuel bills. Consumer Focus spokeswoman Audrey Gallacher argued that the DECC’s fuel poverty predictions do not take account of the fact that other energy providers are likely to follow suit. "If these [new price rises] are in line with British Gas and Scottish Power, around 12 million people, or 6.4 million British households, are likely to be in fuel poverty," she said.
A recent report for Friends of the Earth listed the many health impacts associated with fuel poverty. The risks for physical health – especially respiratory disease and CVD - have been widely documented. We can even see the effects in mortality rates: more people die in winter months. This is not inevitable. Scandinavian countries, with colder winters but more efficient homes and less social inequality, have lower excess winter mortality.
The evidence on the mental health impacts of fuel poverty is scarce. This is what makes the NatCen study, Health, Mental Health and Housing Conditions, so crucial. Using data from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007, we showed that even after controlling for financial circumstances, people living in cold homes were more likely to have anxiety and depression than those who did not. The same was true for people living in homes with mould and for those living in fuel debt. It’s not difficult to imagine why.
A quarter of the respondents living in cold homes reported avoiding inviting people home as a result. Social isolation, stigma and stress are established predictors of poor mental health. We found that a quarter of lone parent households reduced their fuel use due to worries about cost, and that disabled people also had particularly high rates of fuel related poverty. 12% had been disconnected in the previous year.
Improving benefit take up and providing debt advice services are both ways to help people stay warm, but they are only part of the story. The existence of a link between cold homes and poor health regardless of a person's financial circumstances, underlines the importance of the Warm Front subsidy scheme. The scheme had focused on improving home heating and insulation efficiency. Now it’s being phased out alongside reductions to the Winter Fuel Payment, should we expect a cold front this winter?
The government’s planned Green Deal aims to start improving the fuel efficiency of homes from next year. The presence of mould is also a predictor of poor mental and physical health. So while insulating homes should be an absolute priority, this must include proper ventilation if an increase in the health conditions associated with mould is also to be avoided. This is all the more important given that our study found the presence of mould to be most common in households with children.