Fuel poverty is a big and complex issue affecting 2.35 million households in England*. The effects of fuel poverty extend beyond simply living in a cold home; not only can housing conditions exasperate pre-existing medical conditions, but fuel poverty has become a major threat to equality within local communities.
How can equality exist when people are forced into fuel poverty simply because of the housing conditions that they live in? Equality is impossible when some people have to make the choice daily of whether to heat or eat: if you can’t afford to heat your home, how can you afford the bus fare into town, or pay for your child to go on that school trip?
The necessity of fuel leads to it becoming an index of poverty, which in turn has a great impact on health, emotional wellbeing and isolation from society. To overcome this and improve social equality, it is imperative to tackle the issue at the root of the cause, ensuring that those most vulnerable have access to information and support enabling them to better their circumstances.
Vulnerable residents are acknowledged as one of the groups most affected by fuel poverty, and are frequently depicted as a “hard to reach” target group – something that is not entirely true. Those that fall into this category, such as the elderly, disabled and low income families with children, frequently come into contact with array of frontline staff delivering different statutory and voluntary services. In order to make the most out of their contact, we must equip these frontline workers with a substantial level of knowledge about fuel poverty and the impact of living in cold homes, so that they are able to recognise and support vulnerable residents.
Tackling fuel poverty this way requires joined-up effort, outlined in the framework of the NICE guidelines on ‘Excess winter deaths and illnesses associated with cold homes’. One of the key recommendations is to make every contact count, this is to provide a platform to increase the impact of the contact of frontline staff. To achieve this outcome people working on the frontline will require Energy Literacy and Fuel Poverty Awareness Training
In Birmingham Councillor Waseem Zaffar’s blog – ‘Birmingham working together to tackle inequality’ stresses the importance of creating a toolkit that can be offered to isolated communities, linking them to resources that can help their individual needs. This parallels the need for frontline staff to be armed with an awareness of fuel poverty, so that they can add that knowledge to their toolkit when visiting or in contact with vulnerable people.
Using this existing route of frontline workers as a platform to identify and refer vulnerable residents living in cold homes would be the most cost effective method to combat fuel poverty.
Additionally, providing vulnerable people with the right support at the right time should help save the NHS £850 million a year that is spent on treating those whose health conditions are amplified by their housing conditions**.
Through fuel poverty training for frontline staff and effective referral of their clients to appropriate help and support, we will be one step closer to eliminating fuel poverty and improving the health and wellbeing among vulnerable groups which, in turn, will improve equality and support a fairer society.
*Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics Report 2015, Department of Energy and Climate Change
**Cold Weather Plan for England, Department of Health
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