“I worried about her especially as winter was setting in. She wasn’t here for the books but the warmth .” says Julia a librarian in Kent (not her real name).
Claire often visited the library, seeking warmth by staying in public buildings, including the town library:
”Take a newspaper, wear a smile and become a wallflower, that way most people will just leave you alone.” (Claire)
Claire isn’t homeless and despite receiving a state pension, finding warmth was what occupied the majority of her day. Julia observed her routine for several years, dismissing her building-hopping as harmless eccentricity – she now know’s better. Claire was cold, especially at home.
A household is in ‘fuel poverty’ if paying for its energy costs would push it below the poverty line in terms of remaining income. Claire was one of Kent’s 57,500 households classed as fuel poor.
In 2018, the highest levels of fuel poverty in Kent were in Thanet (10.7%) and Folkestone and Hythe (10.2%). The lowest levels of fuel poverty were in Dartford (6.8%) and Tonbridge & Malling (7.3%) and
Sevenoaks (7.3%), according to the latest published data by the Dept of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, on the 30 April 2020.
Compared to 2012 data, the number of Kent households in fuel poverty has risen 10%. These values are higher than the average for the South East which has risen only 9% since 2012.
Claire uses a mobility scooter as she suffers from chronic respiratory problems; she needs several inhalers. She wears many layers that visibly weigh down her diminutive frame, yet this is essential getup for her.
The Kent & Medway Energy and Low Emissions Strategy identified these as Kent’s fuel poverty risk factors:
housing with poor energy efficiency
The private rented sector and pensioners living alone in their own homes are at greatest risk to fuel poverty.
Older people are more at risk of being fuel poor; they’re more likely to live alone in larger houses and likely to spend more time at home. They are not always computer literate and less likely to take advantage of cheaper energy tariffs available online through comparison sites. This was the case for Claire.
43.3 per cent of fuel poor households are owner occupied. However, households in private rented accommodation are twice as likely to be in fuel poverty than the national average.
47.4 per cent of fuel poor households are in employment, and 9.7 per cent of fuel poor households are unemployed. However, households where the household reference person is in receipt of state benefits are around four times more likely to be in fuel poverty than the national average.
Since 2012, an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is issued whenever a property is built, sold or rented in the UK. It is used primarily by would-be buyers or renters to see how much their energy-related CO2 emissions and costs are likely to be.
It was hoped the EPC would also be a tool for landlords to improve the efficiency, running costs, and therefore the overall comfort of their property for tenants. But there was no incentive for them to do so.
Housing in Kent is notoriously costly to buy or rent. Of the 650,000 dwellings in Kent, 17% are privately rented – above the national average. Tenants on benefits or even medium incomes are increasingly unable to afford the rising costs of rents across swathes of the county, and this is a driving factor behind fuel poverty.
The government’s Clean Growth Strategy sets the ambition for all fuel poor homes to be upgraded to an EPC rating of C by 2030. According to the latest EPC ratings, 74% of private rented dwellings in Kent are rated below C, 22,000 of which are rated F or G.
The most common EPC rating in Kent properies is D, at 212,022 homes (33%)
As of the 1 April 2020, new legislation means all landlords of private rented properties in England and Wales have to ensure their properties are at least an EPC rating of E for all tenants.
This legislation matters because, as well as causing suffering, there is mounting evidence that cold homes actually kill. Up to 30% of excess winter deaths can be considered attributable to cold homes, according to the World Health Organisation.
The number of excess winter deaths in Kent in 2018 was 1,410. Respiratory diseases were the leading cause of excess winter deaths in 2018. Claire showed clear signs of chronic respiratory issues, what with her bag full of inhalers.
Julia became so concerned about Claire she contacted the Energy Saving Trust (EST), to ask what Claire needed to survive the winter.
EST informed Julia that sadly Claire’s story is not uncommon. Most people experiencing fuel poverty do not realise it, but present to food banks, health services or community and faith groups with problems that could be symptomatic of fuel poverty, such as inability to pay for food and transport costs, debt, excessive damp and mould, and physical and mental health problems.
There are some encouraging signs regarding the regulation of energy efficiency in privately rented property across Kent. All we need now is a county wide ‘cold homes strategy’ to help landlords in Kent understand their legal obligations, and guide them through them opportunities to improve their properties and the lives of tenants within. Such changes will make their properties more livable and save lives.
Tackling cold homes would not only save lives but can help the planet, by heating homes efficiently and reducing CO2 emissions. Now more than ever, it’s time to address both of these issues. We need more funding, better housing regulations and joined-up working across agencies to help those in need.
Julia managed to get Claire switched to a cheaper tariff and a Green Home Grant. She sees less of Claire now. She worries less knowing she is at home, safe and sound and warm.
Often the best stories don’t come from people who do journalism as their day job, but from people who notice something wrong in their world and write about it. Julia got in touch with us because she was sick of seeing visitors to her library struggling with the cold each winter and thought that other people should know how chronic an issue this still is.
If you have a story like Julia’s, do contact us.
The Shepway Vox Team
Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful