In July 2014, the government published its consultation document to help develop a new fuel poverty strategy for England (Cutting the Cost of Keeping Warm: A new fuel poverty strategy for England consultation document). This is the first such strategy in over a decade and underlines the importance of government policy as a lever in helping to address this issue.
Key to maximising the impact of any future policy is how fuel poverty is measured and defined. There has been much discussion about the new low income high costs (LIHC) indicator of fuel poverty, following on from the Hills Review in 2012. However, as the consultation acknowledged, policy should also be informed by an understanding of the real life experiences of those who are considered to be fuel poor under this new indicator. To these ends, we were commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in August 2013 to review the existing evidence on the behaviour of the fuel poor. This review has now subsequently been published alongside the government consultation.
Our review involved a rapid appraisal of the existing literature on the behaviour of fuel poor households. In total, 57 pieces of evidence were reviewed around four key areas:
- Awareness and views of energy efficiency amongst the fuel poor;
- Energy behaviours and concerns of the fuel poor – including how they heat their homes, engagement with energy use and bills and motivations behind behaviours;
- Barriers and facilitators to behaviour change around energy efficiency improvements in the home; and
- The impact of organisational and local community engagement on attitudes and knowledge of energy use.
The review uncovered a lot of interesting work done on the lived experience of fuel poverty. However, there were notable omissions and gaps in the literature as a whole. These included:
- Challenges in being able to draw general conclusions about the fuel poor. This was for two reasons. Firstly, there was little evidence that the literature used official indicators of fuel poverty, with most studies using a proxy to identify the fuel poor (e.g. low income) or ‘at risk’ vulnerable groups. Secondly, much of the literature relied on small scale qualitative work and surveys or focused on specific sub-groups of ‘at risk’ populations, which made generalisations difficult.
- Lack of coverage of the awareness and attitudes towards energy efficiency amongst the fuel poor. This included understanding their awareness of current energy efficiency initiatives and their capacity to pay for improved energy efficiency measures.
- Limited discussion of the breadth of energy behaviours and concerns of the fuel poor. There was a lack of detailed coverage on how heating systems were used by those in fuel poverty (e.g. how they use timers, thermostats and how they manage heat in different parts of their homes) and how they prioritised the different needs (e.g. comfort and costs) and how these informed behaviours.
- Further information is needed on the barriers and facilitators to behaviour change around energy efficiency. In particular, whether there were barriers that were common to the take-up of energy efficiency across fuel poor groups, whether there were differences in these between different sub-groups and what triggered changes to energy efficiency behaviour (e.g. levels of perceived comfort and/or savings derived from the changes).
- Limited discussion on the level of engagement the fuel poor had with the local community and organisations. There was paucity of knowledge around the channels of information the fuel poor use to engage with the energy markets and offers, as well as their interaction with initiatives designed to lift them from fuel poverty. More specifically, why the fuel poor do not take-up these initiatives and how best to communicate them – including the role of digital communication channels.
Underpinning the above, it is important to understand the similarities and differences in behaviours and attitudes across the diverse range of groups that can be considered to be fuel poor under the new definition.
Our research highlighted some important gaps in our knowledge about fuel poverty and the government’s recommendation in its draft strategy to fill these gaps with research is very welcome.