Households in fuel poverty face both lower incomes and higher energy needs. In the UK 27% of families live in houses rated E, F or G on their Energy Performance Certificate. To give context, new Government measures are insisting that private landlords bring their housing stock to at least a C rating by 2017 as anything below is considered to be unsuitable.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that if you spend long periods of time in a particular part of the home, the average temperature in that area should be 21C. With more than five million UK households living in fuel poverty – defined as spending more than 10% of income on energy bills – unfortunately this isn’t possible for everyone.
For tenants with conditions created or made worse by cold and damp conditions, the knock on consequences can be dangerous and public spend used to remedy the consequences is colossal. The BRE’s new report ‘The cost of poor housing on the NHS’ indicates the NHS could save over £848 million per year if excess cold issues were rectified in UK housing stock. The BRE suggests ‘a programme to educate people on the health and safety risks in their own homes would pay dividends’.
The new Government strategy – the first of its kind in a decade – published in March this year outlines, ‘Our vision is to cut bills and increase comfort and well-being in the coldest low income homes.’ DECC is providing £3m of funding for pilot projects which encourage innovative thinking in order to tackle the problem of fuel poverty and alleviate our already burdened NHS. The Department of Health and the Department of Housing are supporting a series of pilot schemes which could shape the way that poorly insulated homes are addressed in the future. These ‘warmth on prescription’ schemes allow GPs the power to prescribe measures such as external wall insulation to patients.
Gentoo housing is working in partnership with the North East Commissioning Groups to facilitate energy saving measures prescribed to a number of poorly insulated homes. External wall insulation was one of those measures implemented as it provides a significant improvement in the insulation of the walls of any property no matter how it is constructed. The tenants chosen for the scheme suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive lung disease exacerbated by cold and damp condition and live in fuel poverty but cold and damp can exacerbate a number of illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism and even depression.
Collectively the patients had had 63 dealings with the NHS – including three emergency appointments – pre installation of the energy saving measures being installed. Gentoo is continuing to monitor environmental improvements and GPs will continue to measure patients but already at the first stage of assessment, the trial patients’ health has improved significantly.
Energy secretary Ed Davey explained that evidence from the pilot projects’ research will be used to evaluate the link between housing and health and potentially to prove the legitimacy of this type of spending. Referring to the significant potential savings across the NHS he described the shift to retrofit solutions as a no brainer saying how he couldn’t understand how this had not been done before.
The Chief Medical Officer’s annual report in 2009 stated that for every £1 the Government spends on insulation for those who cannot afford it, the NHS saves 42p so conjoining Government departments for a more holistic approach to the problem seems logical. The link between housing and health is clear and addressing this could save the NHS millions of pounds.
This local approach is outlined in a new report from Which? titled ‘A local approach to energy efficiency’. The report points to measures that need to be taken by government to make this collaborative approach work. Which? suggests that in order for the schemes currently on trial to turn into a permanent home energy retrofit solution across the UK, this would have to be part funded by a central administrator to local authorities as well as long term levy on energy suppliers.
Which? Director, Richard Lloyds said: “The next government must grab this issue by the scruff of the neck and commit to an aggressive energy efficiency strategy as soon as it takes power.”
A mutually beneficial joining of two Government Departments would be a bold move for any Government but if the results of the trial projects show clear advantages in terms of public health and public spending then it seems like the obvious solution.