Fuel Poverty Act ‘both unambitious and unrealistic’, team of energy experts argue

Ben Wray

Glasgow Caledonian University experts give a lukewarm response to the Scottish Government’s Fuel Poverty Act

  • Fuel Poverty Act, passed in June and commencing last week, establishes a new means of calculating fuel poverty with particular provisions for rural areas, and a new target of no more than 5 per cent in fuel poverty by 2040
  • Latest figures show 23.7 per cent of Scots currently in fuel poverty, with 11.9 per cent in extreme fuel poverty
  • Team of fuel poverty researchers welcome aspects of the Act, but argue that the targets are unambitious and a lack of a people-centred approach to service provision, backed up by ring-fenced funding, will hinder the government’s ability to meet its targets

A TEAM of fuel poverty experts have responded to the Scottish Parliament’s passing of the Fuel Poverty Act by arguing that while progress has been made, a lack of emphasis on improving service provision means that the Bill is unlikely to meet its aims without further changes.

The Fuel Poverty Act was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament on 11 June and came into force last week [19 September]. The new law sets a target of no more than 5 per cent of Scottish households in fuel poverty by 2040, with no more than 1 per cent of households being in extreme fuel poverty.

A person is defined as being in fuel poverty if more than 10 per cent of his or her income is spent on energy costs and what is left over is enough to live on (described as a Minimum Income Standard). A person is defined as being in extreme fuel poverty if they are paying more than 20 per cent of their income on fuel costs.

Under the new definition, the number of households who are in fuel poverty in Scotland is just under one-quarter (23.7 per cent), while the number of people in extreme fuel poverty is 11.9 per cent. The Scottish Government missed its previous target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016.

The Act also requires the Scottish Government to account for the higher costs of living in rural areas. Rural fuel poverty currently stands at 29 per cent, with extreme fuel poverty at 19 per cent.

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The team of researchers, led by Dr Keith Baker of the Built Environment Asset Management (BEAM) Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, welcomed the changes to assessing rural fuel poverty and the Minimum Income Standard, but found that the new targets lack in ambition and does not reflect the evidence that a more people-centred approach to tackling fuel poverty is required, which focuses on adequate service provision to meet households needs.

Commenting, Dr Baker, who is also co-founder of the Energy Poverty Research initiative (EPRi) and a member of Common Weal, said: “The Fuel Poverty Act has been a long time in the making, and whilst we are very happy to see that the Scottish Government has taken on board the evidence for the higher costs of living and heating homes in these areas, there are other aspects of the problem, such as access to services, that remain to be fully addressed and accounted for.

“Our work has shown how and why fuel poverty is not simply a product of low incomes and high household costs, but is a highly complex condition that is best addressed by ensuring householders have access to empathetic face-to-face and in-home support from trusted, locally-based organisations. Without such a shift in focus, which must include ring-fenced funding for local authorities to coordinate and deliver such support services, the new targets would appear to be both unambitious and unrealistic”.  

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Dr Ron Mould, a former PhD student at the BEAM Centre, a co-founder of EPRi, and a member of Common Weal, said: “Over the past few years we have worked hard, examined and questioned many assumptions that are prevalent in the common understandings of fuel poverty and the fuel poor.  Where appropriate we have challenged assumptions and continue to do so. 

“As people continue to work on assumptions that in reality are not favouring those most in need, and are actually disadvantaging them, we will continue to push for folk first policy solutions that place people at their heart, not simply the bricks and mortar they call home.” 

Commenting on the Bill after it was passed, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart stated: “It is unacceptable that people are forced to choose between heating or cooking their dinner because they worry about fuel bills.

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“This is the most ambitious and comprehensive fuel poverty legislation in the UK, setting us on a course to provide greater help for people who need it most by defining fuel poverty more closely with income poverty.

“This important bill will continue Scotland’s world-leading position as one of only a handful of countries to define fuel poverty, let alone set targets to eradicate it.”

A full fuel poverty strategy is expected to be published by the Scottish Government in 2020, with a new statutory Fuel Poverty Advisory Panel established, with the aim of ensuring the new targets are met.

Picture courtesy of CORGI HomePlan