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The "simple" solution to fuel poverty

Fuel poverty can be defined in a number of ways, but every definition basically means the same thing - a household that can't afford to heat the home to a comfortable level.

Every year, tens of thousands of people die due to factors relating to living in a cold home - and according to experts, the vast majority of those deaths are unnecessary. What's more, complications relating to cold homes also put additional strain on the health service. In fact, the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group has estimated that the impact of cold homes costs the NHS some £1.36 billion every year.

In 2013, an estimated 2.35 million households lived in fuel poverty in England, while across the EU, there could be 50 million to 125 million people living in fuel poverty. These figures are also expected to rise in coming years.

So what can be done about the problem? Mari Martiskainen, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, says there is a "surprisingly simple" solution to the problem. That is to carry out a huge upgrade in the housing stock.

"The problem cannot be solved without dedicated, long-term, government action to address the quality of the housing stock, not only in terms of improved energy efficiency but also in terms of improved quality of life," she says.

Of course, while the solution may be a simple one, it has also not proven to be easy to carry out.

Dr Martiskainen explains that there are usually three causes linked to fuel poverty. These are the poor energy efficiency of housing stock, high energy bills and low income. 

She adds that there have already been a number of programmes in the UK, which aimed to tackle fuel poverty - such as Winter Fuel Payments. "However, it seems that official action on fuel poverty has not been able to get to the root of the problem - especially given that the government's commitment to deliver energy efficiency measures has reduced considerably in the last two years," she explains.

Because being fuel poor often has a stigma attached to it, it's not always easy for authorities to recognise those who may need help.

"The persistence of the problem has prompted others to dive in. These have included health workers, who can see a benefit in helping those who live with fuel poverty and have respiratory or other health complaints," Dr Martiskainen says, adding that other community groups may also address sustainable energy.

​But she believes that, ultimately, it's the government that needs to step up and deliver a nation-wide programme that improves the housing stock with efficiency measures like thermal wall insulation, draught proofing and new boilers. "When ad hoc initiatives start to address national concerns, then it is time to ask whose responsibility it is to tackle fuel poverty, and who should pay for it," she says.

"While fuel poverty has been tackled from many angles, the problem ultimately cannot be solved without dedicated, long-term, government action to address the quality of the housing stock, not only in terms of improved energy efficiency but also in terms of improved quality of life."


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