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Blog Post 3 December 2021

No one should have to choose between eating or heating

Every home should be warm and safe, but for over 4 million households in the UK, the reality is very different.

With the cost of living at its highest level in a decade, this winter some may have to make the difficult decision between choosing to keep food on the table or heat their homes.

At Energy Saving Trust, we deliver programmes across the UK to help people struggling to pay their energy bills to help keep these households out of fuel poverty. We spoke to two colleagues about their experiences of helping those most in need.

Peter Hughes, partnership development manager, Nest

I’ve worked on several projects designed to reduce fuel poverty in Wales. My current position at the Welsh Government Warm Homes Nest scheme involves building partnerships with public facing support organisations, to raise awareness of Nest free support and drive referrals into the scheme. Previously, I’ve coordinated and assisted local fuel poverty projects and delivered in-home energy coaching, to empower residents with practical knowledge and encourage energy behaviour change.

Wales has some of the oldest and coldest homes in Europe, with much of rural Wales having no access to the relatively cheap heating option of mains gas. Supporting residents in hard to treat, off-gas homes is a priority within the Welsh Government’s ‘worst first’ approach to tackling fuel poverty. Nest plays a key part in the strategy, providing free telephone advice and signposting to everyone in Wales, and for eligible customers living on low incomes in cold homes, a package of free home efficiency measures such as heating systems and insulation fitted in their home.

The Nest advice team support customers daily with a range of issues related to fuel poverty and energy insecurity. In extreme cases fuel poverty can lead to a ‘heat or eat’ situation where a resident is self-disconnecting their energy supplies. For example, some householders cannot afford to fill their heating oil tank, and are not heating their home, leading to unhealthy condensation and mould. And relatively, those on the lowest incomes are likely to be paying the highest prices for their energy.

The positive news is that Nest has supported over 46,800 households with a free home energy efficiency package in their homes since 2011. And customer testimonials show this has made a real impact in terms of improving comfort and wellbeing while helping reduce energy bills. As we head into another winter, many are facing a sharp rise in energy prices, pushing more households into fuel poverty. We are currently working closely with our partner network to ensure we reach the householders most in need with key support once again this winter.

Sitar Ramsay, partnership and improvement manager, Home Energy Scotland

I’ve worked in fuel poverty for over 20 years, providing energy advice over the phone, in the home, at events and workshops and supporting other advisors to do this. In that time, I’ve seen several plans to eradicate ‘as far as practicable’ fuel poverty. As far as practicable because as long as we have poverty, we’ll have fuel poverty. As long as people have low incomes, energy prices are high and homes have inefficient heating and lack insulation, we’ll have fuel poverty.

Every day, Home Energy Scotland advisors hear the desperate situations of people who can’t afford to heat their home. We’ve had a householder living on as little as £3,600 income a year while their energy debts increase and housing becomes less and less secure; another living on £8,000 a year and heating only one room, only in the coldest weather. I’ll never forget monitoring the temperature over winter and noticing that it reached 18°C only on Christmas Day: most of the winter this home was under 15°C, in the one room that was heated. Closer to home, my dad, in his seventies, tells me it’s ‘plenty warm’ in his house at 15°C, as long as he has his (charity shop) down jacket on, but ‘a bit parky’ in the mornings at 12°C, and tough on the fingers having the hot water on just once a week. Thousands of people live like this.

This winter energy prices have gone up, there aren’t cheaper deals through switching supplier, and people with storage heating tariffs now pay as much for the ‘off-peak’ units as standard domestic units – and they pay higher standing charges. We’ve done a lot of work to expand advice for homes with electric heating and heat pumps because electricity is expensive to use, even though it’s less carbon-intensive than gas and other fossil fuels.

The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use, so insulation and draught-proofing to keep the heat in are crucial. So is preventing dampness. Many people will find condensation on their windows and if there’s not enough heat going in and air going out, in the back of wardrobes and behind sofas. Condensation grows mould which can cause coughs, respiratory disease, and depression. Opening windows lets the damp air out, but it also lets out the heat, so it’s a tough choice to make. If I could give one piece of advice to every household, it’s to open the windows in the morning for an hour with no heating on, to let out the damp air, and then close them to keep the heat in. If it’s sunny, open the curtains and blinds to let in as much warmth and UV as possible, and close them as soon as the sun goes down to keep the heat in. It can make as much difference as having double glazing, and costs nothing.

Last updated: 2 December 2021