Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.

Winter is a coming and my mind is taken back to 2015, to my first few months as a district councillor. Following various interactions with residents and a local housing association, I asked Rother District Council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee to look at fuel poverty in the district. “We want our residents to be housed in homes that are warm and have modern facilities,” is one of Rother’s visions for the District. Reducing fuel poverty is an “action” in Rother’s Corporate Plan to the extent that it aims to “facilitate and signpost residents to switch energy supplier and achieve savings”.

The coastal Rother District is not an affluent part of the south east. As it ranks a little above the national average on the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, I felt quite strongly that, as a Council, we needed to understand the extent of fuel poverty in our area, its impact on health, quality of life, and housing. We could then consider whether, and if so how, Rother could enable effective solutions to be tailored to the District’s local circumstances and whether there was a “working together” agenda in our community to enable and support co-ordination with relevant initiatives and other agencies, such as the County Council, housing associations, and Age UK.

Fuel poverty is driven by three key factors: energy efficiency of the home, energy costs, and household income. It is where a household is unable to afford an adequate standard of warmth (21°C in the living room and 18°C in other occupied rooms) and where more than ten per cent of its income is spent on all fuel use. The Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics show that over 10 per cent of English homes are suffering from fuel poverty, many of which are in rural areas. Households with lower energy efficiency bands have a higher likelihood of being fuel poor and rural areas suffer particularly due to a lack of options for fuel as many homes lack mains gas. Rural communities need to maximise efficient fuel use and insulation because many of the homes are older and poorly-insulated with solid or non-cavity walls, making them harder to heat. In addition, rural residents face the challenges of lower average wages and an ageing population.

Fuel poverty figures in England rose to 2.38 million homes by 2014. The Government’s Committee on Fuel Poverty produced a list of recommendations in September 2016 that it believed would be needed to achieve the Government’s fuel poverty targets for 2020, 2025 and 2030. The Committee stressed the need for better targeting of future Energy Company Obligation scheme assistance to those in fuel poverty – a government energy efficiency scheme to help reduce carbon emissions and tackle fuel poverty. It also called for new regulations to require private landlords to upgrade properties to Band E up to a spending cap of £5,000 per property, with funding then available for any additional works. The changes came into place in April this year.

The Committee said there was a strong case for strengthened enforcement action where households are identified as at risk from cold homes, and that fuel-poor homes should receive assistance with energy bills while awaiting the installation of energy efficient measures. Tackling fuel poverty is a legal obligation of Government, but landlords and energy suppliers also have moral and social responsibilities, especially to the elderly, and those on benefits. Energy suppliers should be encouraged to engage with local authorities, social services, citizens’ advice and charitable groups, such as Age UK and Macmillan, to work out the best solutions to help vulnerable customers.

Reducing fuel poverty is important. Nine percent of households in Rother and over 22,600 homes in East Sussex (nine per cent) are defined as being fuel poor. In the last 5 years, an average of 300+ people each year in East Sussex have died in the winter compared to the rest of the year – a third of these deaths attributable to cold homes (heart, respiratory, strokes). There is also a cost to the NHS: a 2012 study by Age UK found that ‘the annual cost to the NHS in England of cold homes is £1.36 billion, not to mention the associated cost to social care services, which is likely to be substantial’.

Since 2011, Rother District Council has not received any capital funding to support new energy efficiency schemes or initiatives, but, as with all local authorities, it is required to publish a progress Home Energy Conservation Act (HECA) report every two years until 2027. Whilst Rother does not have the financial resources, budget or staff working directly to target fuel poverty, it is part of a local partnership, East Sussex Energy Partnership (ESEP), which was formed to promote home energy efficiency, insulation and renewable measures. ESEP co-ordinates the East Sussex Fuel Poverty Reduction Programme, which aims to protect individuals and communities from the effects of living in a cold home.

There have been government grants to assist households to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. However, these grants are only available for short periods of time and often limited to households on income related benefits. The Government has made a start to address the issue of fuel poverty, but it needs to do more, including through data sharing to identify people in fuel poverty. Aside from energy caps, it also needs to ensure the recommendations of the Competition and Market Authority’s remedies are implemented so that the energy market works for all consumers, particularly those who are more vulnerable.

As far as communication and identification of people at risk of fuel poverty goes, and as part of ESEP, RDC will continue to train frontline staff about fuel poverty, assist residents to get assistance, and promote various local fuel poverty reduction initiatives for vulnerable residents.

It is shocking that fuel poverty is still affecting so many people. As councillors in our communities, we need to raise awareness among professionals and the public about the risks of fuel poverty, how to keep warm at home and identify vulnerable people who live in a cold home – and refer them for help.