Eating or Heating? The Interface of Fuel Poverty and Policy Initiatives in the United Kingdom

Barbara Holler

In the UK fuel poverty is defined by the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act as: “a person is to be regarded as living “in fuel poverty” if (s)he is a member of a household living on a lower income in a home, which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost (UK Government 2000). In the UK where more than 5 million people were in fuel poverty in 2011, meaning they spent more than ten percent of their income on energy costs, many cash-strapped households go without heating every winter to keep costs down. In early 2013 the UK Coalition government introduced an energy efficiency plan, called the Green Deal Loan Scheme with the aim of helping UK residents to install energy saving technologies without any upfront costs ostensibly to combat growing concerns to peoples’ inability to afford adequate heating during the winter months. This is of even greater relevance since the Green Deal Loan scheme in the UK has been scrapped in July 2015. In this paper residents on welfare benefits living on a Housing estate located in the South-East of England respond to debates embedded in energy affordability and explore the realities of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. The individuals talk about the expensive nature of household energy and the impact upon their quality of life. These experiences are then contrasted with government policies like the Green Deal Loan Scheme aimed at making energy-saving improvements in housing across the UK. Based on 36 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted on this Housing estate, the principle objective of this paper is to present material highlighting the experiences and perceptions that the provision of social housing facilitates in the context of fuel poverty. With the rise of an ever-increasing punitive welfare system in the United Kingdom this paper argues that there needs to be a more nuanced and critical re-evaluation of specific social policies including the Green Deal Loan Scheme.