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Cooking with gas

The twin threats of fuel poverty and poor energy efficiency need to be addressed for sake of both the environment and the fuel poor.

The latest announcements of price rises by British Gas and the other leading energy companies will do little to ease the concerns of those involved with fighting fuel poverty among the UK’s elderly and vulnerable population. The new rises - of 12.4 per cent on gas and 9.4 per cent on electricity – mean that British Gas customers have faced rises of 91 per cent for their gas since 2003. The 81 per cent increase for electricity over the same period does not make for much happier reading.

British Gas is by no means alone with its spiralling costs. Industry watchdog Energywatch noted in the wake of the rise that the hikes made it a ‘round dozen’ as they made British Gas the last of the six biggest UK energy providers to announce a second set of price rises this year, having already notched up a 22 per cent increase in March. The watchdog went on to assert that, across the industry, gas prices have increased by an average 87 per cent since 2003 and electricity by 57 per cent.

As if the rises themselves are not enough, it has also emerged that those with prepayment meters can expect to pay almost £200 per annum more for their gas than those who pay quarterly or monthly bills. Since those on prepayment schemes are for the most part the poorest members of society and those who are judged a credit risk by suppliers, the situation would seem somewhat self-contradictory.

“You are someone who can ill afford our products, so we’re going to charge you more for them than those who can,” the energy companies seem to be saying.

The number of households in fuel poverty, defined as those that spend 10 per cent or more of total income on fuel, may have been steadily declining over the last 10 years, but with over a million households still classed as fuel-poor and ever increasing energy costs it is not surprising that Energywatch, as well as charities such as Help The Aged are concerned. Since 1986, when disconnections due to debt peaked at 160,000 a year, the energy industry has introduced ‘safety net’ measures to help those who are struggling with bills to avoid disconnection. Energywatch itself attests that prices, even with the recent rises are, in real terms, lower than before privatisation. None the less, notes Energywatch chief executive Allan Asher:

“Britain has the highest number of avoidable deaths due to winter colds in Western Europe.” He continues: “In 1991 there were 7.3 million households that were either fuel poor or were considered vulnerable to fuel poverty. By 2002 this figure had fallen to just over 2million. But double-digit hikes in energy prices in the past 18 months put this progress at risk. "The Government’s target of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016 will be in serious jeopardy if energy price rises go ahead."

Interventions such as price controls and financial assistance for the vulnerable may present a short term solution to fuel poverty, but with ever-dwindling oil and gas reserves and the likelihood of continued price rises as a result, it could only be a matter of time before none but the very richest members of society can afford a share of our sparse fuel reserves. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that building more energy efficient homes and breaking the historical reliance on fossil fuels is far more than a passing fad or a potential vote winner.

Schemes such as EcoHomes attempt to encourage housebuilders to adopt the latest environmentally friendly techniques in new developments, while significant grants and advice are available to those who wish to improve the energy performance of their existing homes, whether homeowners or landlords.

One crucial source of such advice is the Energy Saving Trust (EST), a not for profit body that aims to encourage sustainable energy use and by doing so cut carbon emissions. The organisation has a broad remit, working with individuals, businesses and both the public and private sectors to achieve its aims.

Catriona Reeby, head of community partnerships at EST, is the person with responsibility for the organisation’s work with housing providers: “We’ve worked with local authorities for 10 years now on improving their existing homes, as well as working within the communities themselves,” she says. “We also work with developers to improve areas like insulation in none council housing, and about four years ago we extended our work to Housing Associations, with whom we work in a similar way to local authorities.”

This work includes offering free advice via the EST information line as well as providing case studies, briefings and workshops for interested parties and acting as a contact point to put those who seek to achieve best practice in touch with those who already have. Reeby does feel, however, that more direction from government could help her cause:

“The problem with schemes like EcoHomes is that too much is open to interpretation, plus of course there is no national regulation to force compliance,” she says. “We have developed our own best practice standard, which goes far beyond EcoHomes and would have real lasting effects, and just as building regulations are a legal requirement for all builders, we hope that this will become the new legal requirement for environmental practice. If we’re going to say ‘let’s make a low carbon community,’ then lets show we mean it by ending the voluntary side!"

Despite Reeby’s reservations, she is keen to acknowledge that good work is being done. The London Borough of Merton, for example, became the first authority in the UK to take advantage of new planning powers to demand environmentally responsible development with a policy which states “All new non-residential developments above a threshold of 1,000 sqm will be expected to incorporate renewable energy production equipment to provide at least 10 per cent of predicted energy requirements.”

Of course, many developers are already designing such equipment into their schemes, but Merton has taken the lead by making it a planning requirement, meaning that developments will remain illegal until the renewables clause is signed off. Nearby Croydon has now taken up the baton by instituting the same policy for all development in the borough, including residential. Significantly, both councils agree that, although the demands have increased the cost of development, there has been no significant downturn in planning applications.

The Peabody Trust, meanwhile, has already won widespread acclaim for its BedZED development incorporating solar heating, water recycling, recycled building materials, and even recycling the heat generated by the solar electricity production in order to heat water across the site, and although the site may still be a rarity in its scale and vision, the ideas contained therein are increasingly being taken on board by many housing developers and providers, with solar panels in particular becoming an increasingly common sight thanks to government grant schemes and the lifetime savings they offer.

Of course, neither fuel poverty or the energy crisis can be solved overnight, nor can the twin dangers be eradicated by the housing sector alone. With the right mix of government regulation and commitment from all sections of industry, business and the community at large, however, we can move in the right direction. We’ve a long way to go before we catch up with the likes of Sweden, a country which emits less carbon dioxide per year than the UK’s biggest coal-fired power station alone, but there are signs that we’re heading in the right direction. If only it was within the power of responsible developers and housing providers to convince our recalcitrant transatlantic cousins to follow suit.

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