It’s a suitably chilly morning to usher in Fuel Poverty Awareness Day 2016; a day primarily designed for those of us (like me) whose central heating clicked on unthinkingly at 6am to ensure the rush to work and school took place in glowing warmth, with plentiful hot water for showers and enough gas and electricity to cook scrambled eggs on toast for five. How lovely.
Others, of course, don’t need their awareness raised at all. They are among the 4.5million people in the UK who the government says are “fuel poor”, who most likely woke up in the cold, got dressed in the cold, and will later go to bed in the cold.
In technical terms, fuel poverty refers to people “who live on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost”. These are our neighbours whose stark choice today is to heat or eat – or worse, those who will struggle to do either.
It’s no surprise that food poverty and fuel poverty are close friends; two spokes in the wheel of wider deprivation, or adjacent seats on the rollercoaster that’s life on a low/no income. We see this every day at our foodbank centres across Wandsworth. If you haven’t got money for food, you’re unlikely to have enough to “burn on gas”, as one guest, a security guard, told me.
Guests at our foodbank centres speak of bone-chilling cold, of wearing winter coats day and night indoors, of huddling together to eke out the last few pence of pre-payment meter electricity: “We don’t often put the heating on, but when we do we just put one heater on, and one light on at a time, and we all stay in the same room. We keep putting more clothes on to keep warm.”
Others ask for food that doesn’t need to be heated, or that can be cooked on a Calor gas heater. Trussell Trust foodbanks across the UK pack “kettle boxes” – food that needs hot water alone to come to life.
The fuel poor I’ve met include an ex-serviceman suffering from PTSD whose rent arrears and deductions from ESA left him just £16 a week for food and utilities: “I ran out of electricity just before Christmas. There’s nothing worse than sitting in the dark with a headlight reading.”
They include the teaching assistant whose low wage can’t keep pace with rent increases: “The rent goes up every April, up and up and up. I’ve always worked, but the money’s just not enough. Rent is £135 a week, and with all other bills, there’s £20 left a week. My gas ran out yesterday so I couldn’t have a bath or hot water. I had to borrow £10 from my sister which I only do if I’m desperate as she’s got kids and not much money either.”
By-products of fuel poverty – damp and mould – are recurrent themes, both in private rented accommodation as well as some social housing. One council tenant showed us how she kept the family’s foodbank food in plastic bags out on their tower block balcony: it lasted longer there than in their damp kitchen where mould quickly spread.
Unsurprisingly, the health impacts of fuel poverty and cold homes are stark: respiratory problems are more than twice as likely in children living in cold homes compared to those living in warm homes; cold housing has a negative impact on mental health in all age groups; cold homes exacerbate existing conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis.
Children’s emotional well-being, resilience and educational attainment may also be negatively affected by cold housing – worrying when you consider that lone parent households are consistently more likely to be in fuel poverty (one in four of all lone parent families, according to government statistics).
That’s why we’re so grateful for our local partnership with Fuelbanks and Families, a charity working in six foodbank centres in London to provide an immediate £49 grant directly onto gas and electricity pre-payment meters. It means that for families referred to us in fuel and food poverty, we can provide emergency food, and they can provide emergency gas and electricity. Other Trussell Trust foodbanks are also operating a different model of fuelbank in 48 centres across the country. We’re all seeing the powerful impact of being able to provide both food and fuel to people at the point of crisis.
Working with Fuelbanks and Families means that families can go home and cook the food we give, and eat it in a warm home. Even more than that, Fuelbanks and Families’ excellent advice worker works one-to-one with families to resolve issues around debt, benefit and housing, and help families navigate the higher tariffs most pre-payment meter customers are forced to pay.
It makes a real and vital difference to the people we support. As one mum helped by Fuelbanks and Families said: “It’s not always long-term help you need, sometimes it’s just that little bit of help where you can just turn things round again. My boys, they’ve got heating, they had the food, they had the warmth, they had the hot water – and a bit of a less stressed mum.”
Now when my heating clicks on in the morning I think of the many people whose stories of fuel poverty I’ve heard over the last few years. Cold comfort, but I think of them often.
Hope you will too.
Sarah Chapman is a volunteer and trustee at Wandsworth foodbank.