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Fighting fuel poverty: What the private sector can learn from social housing

  • 22 Jun 2016

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Andrew Orriss, head of business development at SIG360, discusses why the private housing sector should adopt the same methods as social housing in its drive to improve energy efficiency, as it aims to bring people out of fuel poverty, cut energy bills and, crucially, save lives…

Winter in the UK in 2015 was mild by typical standards, yet over 9,000 people sadly lost their lives due to cold homes in England and Wales alone, according to a study by the University College London. That makes cold homes a bigger killer than road accidents, drug or alcohol abuse.

While these are shocking figures, the most shocking thing is that deaths of this kind are preventable. With an alarming 2.35 million people now considered fuel poor in England alone – approximately 10.4% of all English homes – the Government and the construction industry must work together to improve the energy efficiency of our properties.

Today, a household is considered to be fuel poor if its fuel costs are above average and if they were to spend that amount on fuel, they would be left with an income below the official poverty line. While it may be easy to believe that a large proportion of those 2.35 million who are fuel poor will reside in social housing, the statistics show otherwise.

Although over 40% of the lowest income homes in England are fuel poor, only 17% of the population who are fuel poor live in social housing, according to statistics gathered in the English Housing Survey. This is due to the strict regulations and pressure put on housing associations and local authorities to refurbish homes to ensure they are up to the required standards.

Unfortunately, for low income households in the private sector where it is the residents’ own responsibility to undertake any refurbishments, the Government has little obligation to provide any financial assistance to improve their energy efficiency. This has allowed social housing to take the lead in the drive to cut energy bills and usage.

So what can private developers learn from their public sector counterparts?

To start, through simple, non expensive improvements, including draught-proofing and improved cavity wall insulation, housing associations and councils have been able to improve the overall thermal performance of social housing through a range of cost-effective methods. These achievements are apparent in their improved Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) –a property’s energy efficiency rating.

There have been efforts from the Government to improve these energy ratings for all UK homes with the implementation of schemes/standards such as the Green Deal, Energy Companies Obligation and the Code for Sustainable Homes. However, the ineffectiveness of some of these has led to them either being scrapped, elongated or withdrawn, highlighting the Government’s weak carbon and fuel poverty agenda.

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For today’s new builds, the stricter Building Regulations set out in Approved Document Part L 2013 demands that properties meet certain thermal requirements. However, for many of the UK’s older homes that were built before these standards existed, certain thermal products will not have been installed. 

Some of these products are now being installed in public sector housing, with proven positive results but without any financial stimulus from the Government, low income private households will continue to find it increasingly difficult to make any thermal improvements to their homes and many will continue living in fuel poverty.

Although the Government may have withdrawn funding from a number of its energy efficiency schemes for cost saving purposes, fuel poverty is having a financial impact on other Government funded sectors.

According to Age UK, fuel poverty is costing the National Health Service an estimated £1.3bn each year. A sum that, if put towards retrofitting low energy rated homes, could not only reduce energy bills and help towards removing fuel poverty entirely, but it could also reduce the amount of energy used in the UK – a target the Government should be trying to achieve.

There are many areas the social housing sector can be seen to fall behind in comparison to the private sector, however the vast difference in the thermal performance of housing is one that should be celebrated.

By showing the Government and the rest of the construction industry how effectively the methods that are employed by the social sector have cut energy bills and reduced fuel poverty, hopefully the private sector – with the help of the Government – can adopt the same methods, achieve the same results and save many lives.

Find out more in the June 2016 issue of PSB Magazine

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