NEWS: ‘People are living in pre-Victorian heating conditions’ – the on the ground impact of the energy crisis

A survey of energy efficiency advisers working for community charity Groundwork paints a sombre picture of the realities for people trapped in fuel poverty across the UK.

The insight comes directly from Groundwork’s Green Doctors – energy efficiency experts who support vulnerable people to stay warm and well – who say they have witnessed a steep increase in those needing support in the midst of the current energy crisis.

Groundwork has been helping households experiencing fuel poverty for the past 15 years through its Green Doctor service, which provides practical measures and free independent advice on how to cut bills and access additional support. The increase in energy prices is leading to spiralling demand – and without extra support, services will not be able to keep up with demand over the winter.

‘Elderly customers have been terrified about putting vital heat on’

The findings show the demand for services has increased, with most Green Doctors having to make difficult choices about who to support.

This year, Groundwork has seen a steep increase in the number of people needing support. They report that cases are more complex and urgent but also that an increasing number of people they see are on average or above average incomes, but still struggling with their energy bills and usage.

One of the main challenges Green Doctors report is that, without being able to help people shop around for a cheaper tariff, the tools they have at their disposal to reduce bills are more limited. Fitting practical energy saving measures in the home can still make a difference but Green Doctors say they are referring many more people to emergency support and debt advice.

One Green Doctor commented: “We have seen a huge increase in the number of people who would not usually access services coming forwards asking for advice and support. This has been especially difficult as a number of people that come through to us don’t always meet the qualifying criteria for all of our services.

“Elderly customers have been terrified about putting vital heat on – previously they were more confident. We have been providing advice on money that will be paid to them to ensure they use their heating.”

‘People are feeling hopeless’

The survey also found that the current energy crisis is having a major impact on the health and wellbeing of people in need of support – with an increase in Green Doctor referrals from mental health agencies. People are routinely having to make the choice between heating and eating and older people and people with health conditions are already suffering directly because of the cold.

One Green Doctor commented: “Mental health is dramatically affected; physical health is starting to become affected and will be impacted more as the colder months hit. Some people are feeling hopeless with the thought of even higher bills coming in the near future.
“We’re seeing an increase of households who say they simply can’t afford to put on their heating at all this winter. They say that they are very cold and wear multiple layers. Some people say that they just heat one room and live in that one room.

“People are living without electricity in pre-Victorian living conditions. Some people get so upset they can cry during a consultation. Others are angry – but pleased to hear from us.”

Green Doctors have also seen the desperate measures people are resorting to in order to stay warm and pay their bills, with 68% witnessing people going to bed early to stay warm, 72% cutting back on essential items such as food or relying on food banks and 40% using unsafe, un-serviced heating appliances or inappropriate devices like ovens to stay warm.

‘The support on offer is simply not enough’

Over 95% of Green Doctors say the current support offered by the government isn’t sufficient to address the needs of the households they work with, noting that support is not addressing the root causes of fuel poverty or the need for long-term structural changes.

Two-thirds of Green Doctors have supported households that have been forced to switch to pre-payment meters and have witnessed people struggling to put money on gas as well as electricity and therefore opting for electric heaters, which are more expensive overall.

One Green Doctor commented: “Energy costs have at least doubled for everyone not on a fixed tariff. The average spend has increased far in excess of the support given in many cases. There is concern about future support, but households are under such stress that forward planning beyond Christmas isn’t happening.”

Groundwork has been reaching as many vulnerable households as possible during the energy crisis, through a range of national and local programmes including a partnership with the Cadent Foundation, which has supported the distribution of 5,000 emergency winter warmer packs.

An additional £1.1m of funding was awarded to Groundwork this month via the Energy Industry Voluntary Redress Scheme that will help to support an additional 4,300 people across the UK.

Graham Duxbury, Groundwork’s UK Chief Executive, said:

“We value enormously the support we get from our local and national partners to maintain and expand our Green Doctor, but there is simply not enough resource available to meet demand.

“Energy companies, charities and independent experts all agree that the financial support measures in place are not enough and that people need extra help to ensure they’re minimising their bills and maximising their income. Groundwork’s Green Doctor service is one of many trying to help people through practical advice and emotional support, but these services are too often reliant on short-term funding with complex rules.

“What we need is simpler, more stable funding models so that we can help those worst off to make best use of the help they’re getting and preserve as much warmth as they can this winter, but also help those who are being pitched into fuel poverty for the first time to make the practical and behavioural changes that can help them stay in control of their bills.”