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Derek Thomas MP: How we can tackle fuel poverty with insulation and renewables


Derek Thomas MP (St Ives)

In towns, cities, villages and hamlets across the UK, the rate of fuel poverty is sharply rising. The latest figures from National Energy Action (NEA) estimate that more than seven million households are now unable to adequately heat their homes. There are many reasons why fuel poverty has increased so steeply, most obviously the ongoing energy prices crisis, but broadly speaking, it relates to the triple threat of low incomes, inefficient homes and national dependence on other countries to provide us with energy.


Fuel poverty has long been a critical and damaging issue for many households, but the early days of 2023 see more homes than ever faced with worsening inflation rates, causing the price of essential consumer goods and services to spike, combined with soaring energy bills which show no sign of returning to normal any time soon. Much of this increasingly expensive energy is being wasted - domestic buildings in the UK have some of the lowest energy efficiency ratings in Europe, with most homes falling below an EPC Band C. The UK’s status as a net importer of fuel means the energy system is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the international and geopolitical events that have, in large part, contributed to the extremely volatile fluctuations in the price of gas that we are currently seeing.


In the face of the crisis, the government has responded with unprecedented levels of public support, it is clearly apparent that much more progress in this area is needed. The Energy Bill Support Scheme provided immediate income support to 28 million UK households, with additional funds being channelled to households receiving means-tested benefits or disability support, as well as those inhabited by pensioners. However, the average annual energy bill has soared from £564 in 2020-2021 to a shocking £2,100, demonstrating the sheer scale and urgency of the problem. The Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) suggests longer term goals and schemes would help increase the level of financial support and jobs in the sector in the present as businesses can scale up with confidence to a long-term strategy. This would immediately boost energy efficiency deployment, helping to tackle the energy and cost of living crisis in both the short term and long term, by supporting households already wracked with fuel poverty and by acting as a vital preventative measure for those on the precipice from sliding into crippling debt in the coming months.


The government has already demonstrated meaningful commitment to domestic energy efficiency improvements, which offers a valuable route for households to lower their energy bills by directly reducing consumption. In the Private Rented Sector (PRS), which has the highest number of fuel poor households, the Decent Home Standard (DHS) is set to come into action for the first time and there are overdue plans in place to tighten Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) in the sector. The recent iteration of ECO, the Energy Company Obligation Plus (ECO+) scheme, will go some way to supporting low-income households, however, mandated widespread improvement, either expansion of existing schemes or new ones will be needed to reach the greatly increased numbers of households in fuel poverty.


While energy efficiency can permanently lower energy bills for households, energy independence is needed to reduce our vulnerability to future international fluctuations in the price of gas – the current crisis will likely not be the last of its kind, but the UK has the opportunity to insulate itself from all but the worst of external shocks. The Government’s current approach, presented through the North Sea Transition Deal, aims to expand fossil fuel extraction in the UK and to increase revenue from oil and gas exports. However, there is an alternative option able to provide true energy security and genuine independence whilst also aligning with our net zero ambitions – continuing to develop our world-leading renewable energy fleet. By focusing investment on renewable energy generation in tandem with sweeping improvements in efficiency, the UK can produce its own world-leading clean energy, deliver on its’ net zero commitments and provide the economy with the raft of green jobs that are crucial for a successful energy transition.


The role of energy efficiency is becoming starker and is in urgent need of policy and regulatory support to accelerate progress in reducing the adverse impacts of cold homes. To this end, the government must accelerate progress on its newly announced Energy Efficiency Taskforce, utilising it to its fullest potential to deliver the £6 billion of new energy efficiency funding announced in the Autumn Statement. This should expand and extend all existing schemes tackling fuel poverty, such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, the Home Upgrade Grant, the fourth Energy Company Obligation (ECO4) and ECO+. Together with regulatory reforms for the Private Rented Sector in DHS and MEES, this takes the urgent steps needed to protect the UK from the threat of unforeseen and fearsome crises in the future.

 

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to cameron@cen.uk.com.

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