Heat ‘n’ Dust

It was a hot summer nightAnd the beach was burning

Back in the good old days – pre-2013- the definition of ‘fuel poverty’ was someone who was regularly spending 10% or more of their household income on fuel to run their homes. Since the surging energy bills of the last few months, that’s now pretty much most of us.

By January, the official estimates are that the average household will be spending £5,000 a year on gas and electricity. Which means that anyone earning under £50,000 would, under the old definition, be classified as ‘fuel-poor’. Take into account that the mean average salary for all workers in the UK is £31,447, that’s one hell of a lot of people who can call themselves poor, even if they might not necessarily recognise that definition of themselves. Yet.

Now though, the definition has changed to something more complicated. Now, you are fuel poor if you have required fuel costs that are above average (the national median level), and if meeting those costs would leave a residual income below the official poverty line. And the official poverty line is that, after housing costs, you are left with income that is 60% below the median household income after housing costs for that year (currently £31,400).

Confused? I think that’s the idea. A first-world nation should not have the majority of its citizens able to be classed as poor in some way. What have all the struggles and triumphs of the of previous generations been for if that is to be the case?

The issue with basing such statistics on having to sit above average costs of fuel when such costs are rising as quickly as they have done this year is obvious – it takes more people out of the definition.

It’s not like energy bills are easy to understand either. If you have one of those smart meters, assuming it works properly, it will tell you how much it is costing you every time you boil the kettle or your teenagers leave the bathroom light on all morning – again. Yet only half of all meters installed in the UK are ‘smart’, so the rest of those households are left with the choice of trusting that the energy supplier is actually taking note of the readings you diligently enter on the App every month, or taking on the black art of deciphering your energy bill yourself. Why in heavens name are gas bills so complicated? Why, when we are being charged per kwH do the meters measure in either cu m or cu ft? I’m sure there is a technically sound reason, but it seems so bonkers to have to subtract one reading from another, multiply by a volume conversion factor of X, then by a calorific factor of Y before finally dividing by a kilowatt conversion factor of Z. All to make sure that you are being charged for what you have used. A smart meter could, possibly, solve all that for you (OK me,) but until a supplier can categorically explain to me how their meter can tell how much gas I use when the electric meter, the boiler and the gas meter are all in different rooms, and that replacing them won’t completely wreck the cupboard in the kitchen where the electric one is neatly and tidily situated, I’m sticking with old-style.

We know the best way to reduce the use of energy in our homes though. It’s to ensure that they are insulated as well as possible, taking into account the need for ventilation and, in the odd Summer heatwave, cooling.

Alas, successive governments have fiddled whilst Rome burned, coming up with notions and schemes that have done little to improve the building fabrics of our homes. Now it’s probably too late. With the cost increasing, we need to spend more of our income on paying the bills. Plus, the general cost of living is also rocketing, putting pressure on our finances. Less money to spare on upgrading our older heating systems and draughty homes means fewer people will be willing or able to make their homes more energy efficient. This means even more of the population in a first world country will be pulled into the bracket of ‘fuel poverty’.

Dishi Rishi and Dizzie Lizzie: whichever one of them wins the race to be PM on September 5th has got their work cut out to get through this mess. I hope they’re up to it. I suspect not.

elec bill confusion
Advanced calculus, string theory, rocket science: all easier to make head or tail of than your average British Gas bill


About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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