Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Fuel Poverty in Birmingham

Yesterday I attended a meeting of different organisations from around Birmingham who are all concerned about the issue of Fuel Poverty and are looking for ways to work together to tackle it.

It was an eye-opening event for me and made me realise how important the work on cold homes we were doing for the energy bill campaign was. It also made me realise that we has missed an opportunity to engage with these people and get the kinds of stories we really needed to shock people into action while we were working on it.

We had various presentations throughout the morning, but the messages that came out were all the same, that this is a massive problem, which is only going to get worse unless some serious action is taken. The problem with Birmingham's housing stock is that many properties are "hard to treat" with effective insulation measures to ensure that they stop leaking heat and therefore wasting energy and money for the people paying the bills. According to Keith Budden (now of E-On), there are over 200 000 houses that need remedial work to make them energy efficient. That is a huge number, but it offers an opportunity to create employment while we remedy the situation as well as posing a problem of how to fund it.

Fuel poverty really does have a huge effect on people's lives. Physical and mental health declines in cold, damp homes with people getting respiratory problems that could last their whole lives, children's attainment at school being negatively affected and social lives destroyed through not having the possibility to invite guests round.

Green Doctor schemes of various types have managed to reach a few people and those that they have helped have really benefited, but the funding to these has now been cut and there is a real danger we could lose the expertise of those people if their work cannot be paid for. The Birmingham Energy Savers project is also having a substantial effect on those lucky enough to get solar panels installed through it, but compared to the scale of the problem - 20% or so of Birmingham's households are estimated to be fuel poor - this is still a small number and not the most vulnerable or poorest people, as the homes done already had a good standard of insulation.

The people I heard from who work for Birmingham Settlement and the Citizens Advice Bureau gave the starkest messages of the difficulties faced by the most vulnerable people. Those with fuel debt cannot switch tariff to a more suitable, many people cannot read their own meters and 90% of fuel poor people use electricity during the day, so should not be on tariffs such as economy 7 that are sold to them as being cheap. 60 000 people go to the CAB with debt problems in Birmingham and almost all of those are related to energy bills.

What came out of the day was a real willingness to start working together and form an affordable warmth action group similar to one we heard about in Walsall that has been really successful.

We need to get the NHS on board as well as energy providers and the city council. However, there was a desire that this would be led by the voluntary sector initially, due to their understanding of the issues.

Proposals such as the one from John Morris of LWM that home improvements should be available on prescription make a lot of sense, as it costs around £10K to treat chronic respiratory conditions each time a patient is admitted. We could do a lot to a home with a fraction of that amount, in terms of insulating it to make it warmer, so joining up these links and putting in early interventions is a crucial part to solving this as it is with many other environmental, health and social problems.

This wasn't just a talking shop, everyone came away with some things to do and we will be looking at helping to refresh the council's strategy for dealing with this problem through partnerships with everyone who is affected by the issue of fuel poverty (and that is a lot of different agencies).

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