Why do people in the UK still struggle to afford energy and why are we still failing to eradicate fuel poverty after so many years? Despite numerous targets, programmes and action plans, and even an attempt to redefine it, we seem no closer to its solution than we have ever been. I went to a recent workshop (the organisers shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) to talk about action on fuel poverty. Of course there were lots of people there that were only too familiar (I count myself as one of them), but that was also an indication of a wider problem with how we are approaching fuel poverty in the UK. We have not come up with any new ideas to tackling fuel poverty - despite it not going away and despite many of its causes and solutions radically changing.
First things first - fuel poverty simply should not exist in an advanced industrial economy that is still number 5 in world GDP rankings. I first became aware of fuel poverty as housing officer in the St Ann's district of Nottingham - I saw its impacts on people lives and their health. This has never changed and it's still an indictment of our society that we still even have workshops on taking action to address fuel poverty
That first experience of fuel poverty was 25 years ago, and I have seen every single one of those years come up with the same solutions, the same debates and the same lack of impact. We are living a policy and action ground hog day, but unlike Phil Conners’ seemingly never ending day, we don't seem to be learning anything new. And because of reductions funding across the board - public, energy supplier, Local authority and social housing - we now have far fewer resources than we did when we still failed to solve the problem of fuel poverty. And for all of those hanging on to the hope that more money will be available so they can simply do more of what they've always done again, you are wasting your time.
You would hope that a lack of money sparks new ideas and innovations. But not in this case. Now there is an argument that the fundamentals of fuel poverty haven't changed so why should the approach? For sure fuel poverty remains a function of high energy costs and low income. The former most often because of the poor energy efficiency of our poor housing stock, but in all of the policy and discussion of action, the debate was grounded in an energy world that is rapidly coming to an end. We are about to enter radically different world driven by new suppliers, new technology, new products, new opportunities. In five years’ time we will no longer recognise the world we live in. The past will truly have become a foreign country.
And all of these changes can and should play a part in finally eradicating fuel poverty in the UK. Let me clear I don't know - and nor does anyone else know - how this new world will quite look. And nor will we know what the journey will look like either. It's gonna be bumpy and exciting. Hopefully when we scream it will simply get faster.
But let me give you just one example of the potential of this new world - smart meters. Of course they are not quite so smart and I bet very few will actually save any money by installing a smart Meter. It's not the point. It is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. It's what they can facilitate that matters.
And I will focus just one element of what smart meters will bring. There are many many more - including smart homes, smart appliances, time of use tariffs, home energy generation and storage. The list goes on. But let's start with some basics - even the installation of a smart meter offers an opportunity to get to grips with fuel poverty by helping to deliver Eco, energy advice, warm homes discount, how people manage their homes including generating energy, storing energy, import and export energy. We will radically change the relationship we have with energy.
But let’s look at just one element of smart meters - the data. We will for the first time be able to identify those in fuel poverty based on REAL and LIVE data. This means we can identify those at risk, those in fuel poverty and those even self-disconnecting. And the joy of this it's not static - one challenge in identifying fuel poverty has been that people's circumstance change, and people move. We will now be able to identify changing circumstances and target help and investment. This data will also give property managers real insights in to the performance of their homes. We will no longer reliant on drive by surveys, theoretical models based on flawed assumptions (step forward SAP and rdSAP), but real data on how homes are performing. Think what this means for focused energy and income advise and for Landlords’ asset investment decisions that could deliver real improvements at lower cost.
This is but one example. There is so much more coming over the horizon. The question is - can we utilise these opportunities to deliver a social good and rid ourselves of fuel poverty?
I think we can and we must. I don't want to attend another event in another 25 years and meet the same people, talking about the same things, while fuel poverty is still making lives unacceptably miserable and let's face it - short.