The forgotten faces of fuel poverty

Author: Matt Neal 08/04/2015

Those living in rural parts of the country, particularly the elderly, are claimed by Age UK to be the ‘forgotten faces of fuel poverty’. Statistics collected by the Office for National Statistics show that residents living in rural communities are predominately aged over 60 with a disproportionately low number of people in the 19 to 35 age bracket.

The overwhelming majority of rural homes are older, village homes and very different from the picturesque mansions commonly thought to dot the rolling hills. Many rural homes were built in the early-to-mid-1900s and, therefore, lack the common comforts of those built in the post-war era when more modern regulations came into effect and buildings (especially those in towns and cities) were connected to natural gas.

Although rural homes are aesthetically pleasing, living in one comes with additional hurdles when it comes to energy efficiency. Loft and wall insulation are likely to be either non-existent or seriously lacking and many of these houses have solid stone or brick walls through which heat escapes at alarming rates. If the original windows are still in place, they’re likely to be single-glazed, have no seal around the edges and be quite draughty. Replacing these can have restrictions on choices, in keeping with the style of the property, especially if located with a conservation zone or having ‘listed building’ status.

The necessary repairs and upgrades are often extremely costly and many householders can’t afford to make them without some kind of assistance. There’s also the dilemma of wanting to keep these village homes looking as unaltered as possible. After all, that’s one of the advantages of living in the country. One of the major attractions of the homes themselves, aside from their location, is that they have a cottage-like, rustic character to them.

Perhaps the most important modern comfort is being connected to the national grid. 4.6 million properties in England have no access to mains gas and 1.5 million of those living in these properties are over the age of 65. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, approximately 55% of rural dwellers rely on oil to heat their homes.

Oil and solid fuel prices don’t get nearly as much publicity as those of gas and electricity but they often put a larger dent in homeowners’ pockets. This winter, oil prices rose 14% over the previous 12 months - to 65p per litre in some places. Also, many oil suppliers have a minimum order charge, which can run upwards of £325 for 500 litres. In general, those living in rural areas spend up to 27% more on energy bills than those connected to mains gas, which can equate to nearly £400 per year.

According to the Department for Energy & Climate Change, 18% of those living in rural areas are in fuel poverty, compared to 16% of those living in urban areas. To help combat this, in the Government’s flagship Green Deal scheme, 15% of each energy supplier’s ‘Energy Company Obligation’ contribution is specifically targeted towards helping those hard-to-reach, low-income households in rural areas.

At a more local level, the Government is encouraging communities to set up oil bulk-buying groups.  Buying in bulk can result in significant savings on heating costs, and such groups have been extremely successful in Oxfordshire and in other parts of the country.

Also, the Government recently launched the ‘Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive’ – d-RHI. This is a financial incentive to promote the switching to, and use of, heating systems that use renewable energy. People who join the scheme receive quarterly payments for seven years for the amount of clean, green renewable heat their systems produce, in much the same way as the feed in tariff (FiT) works for electricity-producing renewable technology.

Although there is some effort being made to ensure rural dwellers are getting the same benefits as those in towns or cities, there’s still a way to go.

So, what can the Government do to ensure that rural residents are taken care of and avoid fuel poverty? 

Oil bulk-buying schemes seem to be an effective way of helping to reduce heating costs. Something similar for those using biomass fuel, for example, could be as successful if implemented correctly.

A bolder option would be to offer an incentive for older people living in large, energy-inefficient houses to downsize and move into properties that are smaller and more manageable while, at the same time, encouraging them to install energy efficiency measures in their new homes. Many elderly people living in large homes are asset rich, but cash poor. With a downsizing incentive, residents would not only be reducing their monthly outgoings, but they would also have access to the assets they hadn’t previously, leaving them with a little money for a rainy day.

Parallel to this, beefing up the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund to make it more applicable to older, rural homes would not only improve energy efficiency generally but would also help reduce the costs associated with living rurally, thereby attracting more younger individuals and families to live in the country.

People who have been living in a rural area for a long time might not realise how much more they’re paying for their energy each year compared to those living in an urban setting. Hosting information fairs, perhaps through Age UK or similar organisations, at the local village pub, hall or community centre would allow residents to compare their yearly spending against what it would cost if they lived in a town or city. Such information would also help to highlight the advantages and potential cost-saving of improving the energy-efficiency of rural dwellings, and/or by sourcing energy (heat and electricity) from a renewable source.

The bottom line is that Government incentives and grants need to be more appropriate to rural properties and more accessible and readily available to those living rurally. With a push to eradicate fuel poverty, the Government needs to focus on the parts of the country that sometimes seem to have been forgotten.