I’ve heard about families with young children getting into bed at 6pm,” says Ruth London, a campaigner with Fuel Poverty Action. “That’s just devastating. That’s not what should be happening to children – to be in bed because the house is too cold.”
Her words echo a story I heard recently from Laura, a mother of three young children in Sheffield. Laura wants her children to be able to “run round and not be tied down to one room, having to be stuck under blankets”. But this winter, she said, rising prices, a draughty rented home, and her partner’s drop in income meant she’d had little choice but to huddle up in bed with the kids in the evening. Her own health was suffering from “all the stress of bills and prices” and the feeling that “you’re stuck in a corner and there’s no way out”.
As the government faces widespread criticism for failing to act to help us keep our homes warm more affordably – and at less cost to the climate – a feeling of powerlessness is palpable for many. The idea that fuel poverty is just another thing more of us will have to “learn to live with” is devastating.
It’s already gone on too long. In the last seriously cold spell a few years ago, a mum of a young baby, Jodie, living in a private rented flat, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire that she “had to make the decision whether we’re going to go with the day being cold or the night being cold”. Another guest, Andrea, said she’d noticed her child “started coming home from school and going straight to bed” but that it had taken her a while to work out why.
Calls to the Gingerbread charity helpline, which assists single parents (nine out of ten of whom are women) are now soaring.
One parent got in touch because their heating bills were “crippling”, but said it felt “cruel not to heat the house to an acceptable level for my daughter”.
Many report making sacrifices: “I don’t use heating in my bedroom, I don’t eat regularly… but this way, my kids don’t go without.” Others were avoiding what they described as “frivolous” hot drinks, and the charity has seen “whole families living in single rooms because that’s all they could afford to heat”.
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group, told me:
“The majority of pensioners are women, the majority of those at home all day with small children are women and women are also the majority of disabled people. We also know that since the pandemic there has been a rise in the number of women working remotely from home.
“Whichever way you cut it, this crisis is likely to have a disproportionate impact on women, yet so far the only measures we’ve seen from the government are ones that benefit wealthier men who own big cars. It’s almost as if history is repeating itself with a return to austerity policies.”
Turning off radiators
The government’s answer? Its energy strategy, released yesterday, declared that addressing the root cause of the crisis – making Britain’s leaky, draughty homes, better insulated and cheaper to keep warm – depended on “following the grain of people’s behaviour”.
Boris Johnson’s outriders seem equally fixated on our own behaviour, rather than that of the government. Former energy secretary Andrea Leadsom yesterday launched the first report of the new 1922 Backbench Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which suggests “turning radiators off in unused rooms”, and she has argued that people should use their washing machines at times of day when energy is cheaper.
But who, exactly, does Leadsom think is going to be getting up in the middle of the night to put a load of laundry on? Or trying to decide if the teenager has abandoned their bedroom and homework for long enough that it’s worth turning their radiator off? Or starting the dinner three hours earlier than they’d like? (No doubt some ‘smart-enabled appliances could help – but who’ll pay for them?)
In the absence of government support or even effective industry incentives to help reduce the heating costs that make up 80% of our home energy bills, the burden falls squarely on ‘households’ and ‘behaviour’.
In other words, it falls predominantly on women. It’s women who still do most of the household energy-using tasks like cooking, laundry, and making sure the vulnerable members are warm, clean, and cared for.
For women across an increasingly wide range of incomes, emphasising ‘behaviour’ changes over actual tangible help might be of no cost to the Treasury – but it’s of considerable cost to them.
Managing the burden of both bills and behaviour is already, as Laura told me, “a nightmare – making sure every single plug socket is turned off, the lights are turned off, having to tell the kids: ‘Come on, turn this light off, get some extra layers on.’”
The Women’s Budget Group points out that women also act as ‘shock absorbers’, worrying about bills and sacrificing their own needs when household budgets are scarce.
So it’s pretty depressing to read an energy strategy that tells us that because “British people are no-nonsense pragmatists”, we need nothing more from the government than some new webpages to help us make “choices” about how to use energy and insulate our homes.
What’s taking so long?
Catherine Mitchell is professor emerita of energy policy at Exeter University, and has spent the past fortnight advising the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On a BBC ‘Newsnight’ special as long ago as 2003, she argued that the answer to our reliance on Russian gas was home-energy efficiency.
This week, she told me it was “madness” for the government to prioritise “incredibly expensive” nuclear energy over cheap onshore wind power and energy efficiency.
“Take a major supplier like British Gas,” she said. “Say if their customers made their homes 85% more energy efficient, their revenue falls dramatically. But there will be all these other companies that come along [to do work such as installing insulation]. It’s not bad overall for GDP, but a swap between the old dirty way of doing business and the new clean way.”
Mitchell is right. The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) says every pound invested in energy efficiency creates five times as many jobs as fossil fuel investment, four times as many jobs as nuclear, and twice as many as renewable generation.
Just about everyone (including BEIS) agrees that energy efficiency must be the “first step” in tackling energy security. And if Vladimir Putin wasn’t incentive enough, the IPCC this week said it was “now or never” to act on climate change, and the government’s climate change advisers say decarbonising housing is essential to hitting our climate change targets.
So why does Rishi Sunak feel comfortable using what cross-bench peer Helene Hayman called his “cold hand” to bat away even the smallest attempts to extend schemes that use existing, straightforward technology to help us keep our homes more efficiently warm?
Perhaps an energy industry source gave us a clue a few years back. Energy efficiency is “not electoral Viagra”, the anonymous figure told The Guardian.
It remains to be seen whether this political calculation holds true – the main opposition parties certainly hope not.
But the choice of analogy is itself revealing.
Energy efficiency is, of course, a “no brainer”, as Hayman told energy minister Martin Callanan in the Lords yesterday. But keeping our homes cosy – keeping more money in the pockets of the women who still largely manage household budgets (particularly, but not only, in poorer families) – just doesn’t seem sexy enough to excite the mostly male brains setting our energy and economic policy. Not when they could be dreaming of bestriding oil rigs, plunging gigantic turbines into the sea, and getting the nuclear power stations throbbing (eventually).
“I don’t think people at the top understand how much a little bit of help goes a long way,” Laura tells me.
And it’s hard to argue.