Posted: 08 January 2015

Reaching fuel-poor families

We have been working with The Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) to carry out research on the problem of fuel poverty among families. Dr Sarah Royston of ACE, the project's lead, outlines its findings and explains one way we can reach out to fuel-poor families.

Bringing warmth to children

Living in a cold, damp home can damage children’s health, affect their schoolwork and have serious impacts on their emotional well-being. Yet an estimated 2.2 million children currently live in fuel poverty – meaning their families struggle to pay their fuel bills – and many families do not get the support they need.

A key form of assistance is the Warm Home Discount, a payment made to vulnerable people to help with energy bills each winter. But 1.9 million children in poverty in the UK are in families that don’t receive this help. What’s more, many families live in leaky, inefficient homes that need improvements like loft and wall insulation, or energy-efficient boilers. 

The Energy Company Obligation (ECO) is a Government obligation that makes energy companies provide free or discounted measures to certain eligible households. However, there are concerns about how much ECO assistance is reaching vulnerable families. Many eligible people don’t know about the scheme, and those who do may not trust the companies enough to take it up. 

Trusted community hubs

As trusted community hubs, children’s centres offer an opportunity to engage families and help them get the support they need. But until now, there has been virtually no evidence on how to deliver assistance to fuel poor families. A research project by The Children’s Society, in partnership with my organisation, the Association for the Conservation of Energy, aims to fill this gap.

The project is called Reaching Fuel Poor Families. It is funded by Eaga Charitable Trust and explores how children’s centres can support families struggling with energy bills. As well as reviewing schemes across England, we have evaluated a successful family advice service at one of The Children’s Society’s children’s centres in Bradford.

Through our fieldwork at Mortimer House Children’s Centre, we’ve had the opportunity to spend time with families and hear their shocking accounts of living in fuel poverty. Some families were forced to go without heating during the cold winter months to save money, while others resorted to using food banks so that they could pay for fuel. Many had got into debt because their energy bills were unaffordable.

We’ve also seen first-hand the dedication and hard work of the centre staff, and the huge difference it makes to families’ lives.

We can ensure children in poverty benefit from the Warm Homes Discount

Parents who have received advice have commented on the many strengths of the scheme, from the friendly advisors to the fact that advice can be accessed in 12 languages. It’s incredible what’s been achieved – all with only two advisors.

Our findings have now been published, and we hope that the research will be useful to other centres considering similar work, making fuel poverty support available through children’s centres on a much wider scale.

In the context of rising energy bills and squeezed incomes, our research highlights the need for effective policies to lift families out of fuel poverty. We need to ensure all children in poverty benefit from the Warm Homes Discount, while improving their leaky homes through a bigger, better programme of efficiency measures. As part of this, a policy framework that supports energy advice in children’s centres would be an effective way to reach families in fuel poverty.

By Sarah Royston - Guest bloggers