What is fuel poverty?

It's not about being poor

Low household income is often linked with fuel poverty, but not always in the way you might expect. Yes, it feels like a battle between your energy bills and your pocketbook. But there's also an elephant in the room, which is the condition of your house or flat, including its heating system and its roof, walls, doors and windows. And two more elephants outside the door: the climate in the region where you live and the current price for the types of energy you rely on.

More and more experts and politicians recognise that the combination of high energy prices and houses that are inadequate for local climates are primary causes of fuel poverty. But other factors contribute to and compound the problem.

Fuel poverty is most common in older homes, many of which were constructed before governments put in place building codes for things like insulation and window performance. Moreover, old homes often still have heating systems that are terribly inefficient against today's standards.

The number of people struggling with fuel poverty can be particularly high in rural areas where people don't have access to the natural gas network and have to rely on more expensive forms of heating (such as fuel oil).

Changing circumstances also play a role; as children grow up and move away, aging parents end up living in houses that are bigger than they need and more costly to heat than their pensions can afford.

When low income is a factor, it might mean a family has less choice about what properties they can afford to own or rent – i.e. usually low quality homes. Those who own their homes often have little left to invest in fix-ups while renters are at the mercy of landlords who may have little interest in spending on repairs when it is the tenant who will reap the rewards of higher comfort and lower energy bills.

The point is this: while absolute poverty is linked to low incomes, being in fuel poverty does not always suggest that a person is poor. Rather, it is often the context – the combination of fuel prices and house condition – that make the person's income insufficient.

One of the reasons fuel poverty persists is that many actions to address it focus on finding ways to help people pay the this year's energy bills. Managing the elephants is a much more difficult and complex task, which means they will likely still be at the door next winter.