Publication - Research and analysis

Lived experience of fuel poverty: evidence review

Review of evidence about the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland.

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25 page PDF

897.8 kB

Lived experience of fuel poverty: evidence review
3. Findings

25 page PDF

897.8 kB

3. Findings

3.1 Drivers and influencing factors

The Scottish Government recognises four main drivers of fuel poverty: energy prices, income, energy efficiency of the home, and how energy is used in the home.

3.1.1 Energy prices

Across all the studies, concerns were voiced about high and rising cost of fuel, worry about being able to afford to heat the home (Green 2007), and difficulties reported in keeping track of usage particularly for those with electric heating and/or lived in rural areas (Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick 2017). In the GoWell study, there was a preference for pre-paid gas and electricity meters because the households could see what they are using, even though these meters are comparatively more expensive (Trevisan et al 2014). For some participants, the rising cost of fuel made it difficult to afford other necessities such as food (Green 2007). In a study in the Western Isles, the cost of heating was found to be significantly higher than on the UK mainland, indicating that participants paid a premium for their remoteness. (Sherriff et al 2019). A study with refugees found that they lacked knowledge about the cost of fuel (Lindsey et al 2010).

The high cost of electric heating is one of the most pressing concerns of households that rely on it, with a perception that high costs are unavoidable and inevitable. Disengagement from the energy market is a major and consistent problem faced by those using electric heating, due in part to a complex and often confusing tariff market, misconceptions around the benefits of switching, difficulties making price comparisons, and problems around dispute resolution (Citizen's Advice Scotland 2018b). There was a poor relationship and lack of trust with energy suppliers in a study with young adult households in England (Butler & Sherriff 2017).

3.1.2 Income and debt

The Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick (2017) study found low financial resilience amongst participants, with some reporting that they would struggle if faced with unexpected expenses or a drop in income. This finding was echoed in other research, which found that fuel poor participants were more concerned about the stability of their income than the actual level of their income (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

Debt was incurred in various ways: by large fuel bills based on estimates not actual readings (Green 2007), due to errors with charges made by the energy supplier, general poor financial management by the householder, or because of the need for longer and higher heating regimes due to disability (Mould & Baker 2017). In remote areas, supplier mistakes and inaccuracy with billing and breakdown of supplier-customer relations was found to be a considerable part of energy advice service workload (Darby 2017).

The study with refugees reported that asylum seekers receive lower levels of benefits than the general population and some did not understand how much of their expenditure would be taken up by utility bills when they changed status from asylum seeker to refugee (Lindsey et al 2010).

In the GoWell study in Glasgow, changes in benefits and sanctions were associated with periods of extreme financial hardship and intense stress for participants (Trevisan 2014). Almost half of the participants reporting increased financial difficulties expressed concern about changes to ways in which benefits would be administered, in particular the monthly frequency of Universal Credit and plans to make recipients directly responsible for rent and council tax payments. These participants also had difficulties scheduling bill payments as they tended to budget on a daily or weekly basis. Concerns about spending Universal Credit payments meant for rent on other things was also noted in other studies (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

One elderly participant in a UK study reported not being able to afford to pay for installation of central heating but was also not eligible for a grant because of a small occupational pension (Wright 2004). Most of the participants in another UK study would not consider borrowing money to increase the energy efficiency of their homes, with debt seen as a last resort (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

3.1.3 Energy efficiency

A study with people on benefits found enthusiasm for energy efficiency programmes (Green 2007). In the Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick (2017) study with SHCS respondents classed as being in fuel poverty, there was general awareness amongst participants that making home energy efficiency improvements is a potential means of reducing fuel bills, with most owner-occupier participants installing double glazing, loft or cavity wall insulation – both self-funded and grant aided. Most had not been proactive but had been contacted directly about schemes by their provider, local authority or government agency, which they appreciated. However, most of those accessing the schemes did not regard affording their fuel bills as a difficulty. There was also uncertainty and in some cases scepticism about the actual impact of the installed measures on the warmth of their homes and on their fuel bills. Those who had not installed measure tended to believe their home was already energy efficient although this judgement was only rarely based on expert evaluation.

Many of the elderly clients supported by an energy advocacy service had persevered for many years without any home improvements, even though they met the qualifying criteria of funded schemes (Mould & Baker 2017).

For council tenants, maintaining a good relationship with council housing officers was important for getting renovation and repair work done, however these relationships were strained at times, with energy advisors seeing themselves as bridging a gap between housing officers and tenants to some extent (Darby 2017). Amongst those who had bought their council home, there was still a wish for the council as a trusted authority to arrange retrofit works.

In a study of council tenants with electric heating, many participants reported having old, broken, poor quality or poor functioning storage heaters. They were also living in poor quality dwellings with damp, cracks and draughts which made their homes difficult to keep warm[3]. They also lacked knowledge about how to use the electric heaters correctly (De Haro & Koslowski 2013).

A study in the Western Isles identified low quality of existing housing stock as a key barrier to improving energy efficiency. Much of the housing stock had been built with loans during the 1940s and 50s, which required homes to be built to a particular design. This design was regarded as one in which it was particularly difficult to improve energy performance. In this context, remoteness was also found to have an impact on the participant's ability to have work done on their houses, with difficulty in finding tradespeople commonly cited as an issue. (Sherriff et al 2019)

A UK study identified various barriers to improving the energy efficiency of homes including a requirement to make financial contributions to enable retrofit work to go ahead. Some households expressed feelings of frustration and powerlessness as they found it difficult to know where to go for energy efficiency information, and where different sources existed not knowing which sources to trust. There was generally less trust with private sector energy companies and installers, and higher levels of trust with public and third sector organisations. The capacity to access and understand advice was problematic for some. Additionally, households in the private rented sector (PRS) in particular tended to hold the perception that they were not eligible for energy efficiency interventions due to not owning their home, and households in low paid work often assumed that support for energy efficiency measures was only targeted at people not in work. Others in the study were reluctant or unable to share personal information with scheme providers and missed out on the intervention as a result (Snell et al 2018).

There was some frustration for households in the social rented sector at lack of autonomy over choice of fuel type (Darby 2017).

In the study by Snell et al (2018), low income families and households with disabled members taking the first steps towards retrofit measures described various concerns that deterred them from undertaking the work:

  • fears about damage and mess,
  • disruption to household and energy routines,
  • upfront costs or uncertainty about hidden costs such as redecoration,
  • provision of information that was difficult or impossible to collect (e.g. householder with disability unable to access loft to measure amount of loft insulation and unable to pay someone else to do it for her),
  • amount of time involved (especially for those in employment, young children, or restrictive health conditions),
  • uncertainty about extent of physical disruption (especially for those with strict medical routine and/or energy dependent equipment).

For some of the participants with health conditions, actually completing the application process was a deterrent (e.g. those on strong painkillers that affected ability to think clearly). The process of proving eligibility and liaising with different organisations was described by disabled participants as draining. Participants with fluctuating health conditions also expressed concerns about the impact of this on being able to manage the installation. Some of the participants that did receive energy efficiency measures reported that the impact of these measures was negated by the effects of other ongoing problems with their homes such as draughts, damp and rotten windows. Some other participants reported feeling warmer but did not see any significant reduction in fuel bills (Snell et al 2018)

A study with households in the PRS in Hackney and Rotherham found that the stress of finding somewhere to live meant that few participants took the energy efficiency of a property into account and had limited engagement with energy performance certificates (Ambrose et al 2016). However, young adult households in Salford took a pro-active approach to avoid renting properties with damp and mould. These interviewees regarded estate agents as dishonest and untrustworthy, and they described searching inside cupboards and looking behind furniture for tell-tale signs. Viewing properties in the summer made avoiding issues of damp and mould more difficult (Butler & Sherriff 2017).

3.1.4 Energy use

There was a feeling with disabled research participants in one study that their additional needs were not being taken into account. For example, longer heating times because of immobility due to disability, and extra fuel used for powering stair lifts or recharging electric wheelchairs (Green 2007). Some participants in another study reported that they were unable to secure formal recognition that their health condition merited help. One participant for example reported that her son suffers from a health condition that requires him to keep warm, which means the household has extensive energy needs, but her son was not registered disabled (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

Across the studies, many participants did not know how to use their heating systems effectively. In a study involving low income families and households with disabled members, some of the participants reported that after installation of energy efficiency measures they were unclear about how to use the new systems (e.g. new boilers), and that they had not been given enough information or support about how to use it appropriately (Snell et al 2018). Lack of knowledge about how to use electric heating systems was a major problem for many households in the Citizen's Advice Scotland (2018b) study, and in the study by De Haro & Koslowski (2013). Furthermore, some participants reported a lack of available information on how smart meters can save money (Melone 2019).

Although research on energy use often focusses on winter as the heating season, one study that focused on households with electric heating in high-rise flats exposed to severe weather conditions due to proximity to the North Sea, found that keeping warm in a cold home was a problem not just in winter but also in summer (De Haro & Koslowski 2013).

There was a general feeling with participants in a study focussing on households reliant on electric heating that electric storage heaters are expensive to run, as well as ineffective in heating the room. However, the participants were unaware of how to use the controls to benefit from Economy 7[4], and were instead using alternative forms of heating such as halogen, oil, calor gas, fan heaters or electric fires, over which they reported feeling more in control in terms of timing and location of heating. One participant found the smell of the air heated by the electric heater affected their breathing and did not use it for that reason (De Haro & Koslowski 2013). The respondents also displayed lack of understanding about how to heat and ventilate the room effectively to reduce damp and condensation. Most of these respondents were at home during the day due to unemployment, retirement, disability or childcare.

There is some evidence of gendered energy use, for example Melone (2019) found that women used the washing machine, which a highly energy intensive appliance, more than men. Households with children also reported using the washing machine a lot. Whilst single men in the study tended to only switch lights on when needed, households with young children used lights more, to welcome children home from activities and for night-lights and multiple lamps in children's bedrooms (Melone 2019). Female participants had generally less knowledge about the energy efficiency of their appliances than the male participants (Melone 2019).

In a UK study of older people that included Scotland-based participants, male participants were far more likely than female participants to say that they never felt cold. Elderly married couples commonly reported tensions over how warm to heat the home in winter, with the husband turning it down and the wife turning it up. Several respondents aged over 80 reported being far more sensitive to the cold with as they got older (Wright 2004). In another Scottish study across adult age groups, perceptions of comfort ranged from 15 to 25 degrees, with female participants tending to prefer higher temperatures (Melone 2019).

Tensions within households were also reported with regards to use of energy-intensive technology. Households with teenagers had the double financial cost of buying the latest gadgets that their children want, and then paying the energy costs of these technologies that their children are dependent on for their social lives (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015). A study of lived experience of fuel poverty of young adult households in England found a fear of disconnection from energy services was linked to a fear of social disconnection – being unable to charge mobile phones and access the internet. This made paying electricity bills a priority. The study also found tensions about laundry practices with regards to use of heating for drying. Perceptions of social approval and disapproval influenced choices about buying appliances such as tumble dryers to avoid having clothes hanging everywhere indoors, which has consequences for energy use (Butler & Sherriff 2017). Access to outdoor space for hanging clothes is not always available.

Disabled people and parents of disabled children described a variety of factors that led to additional energy use: need for higher temperatures and/or longer heating periods, using energy-intensive equipment such as stair lifts, hoists, electric wheelchairs, medical equipment, and additional washing and drying requirements. These needs increased energy costs, and the risks associated with disconnection are high, which was a particular concern for those with pre-payment meters. One participant living off-gas grid in a rural area reported she was no longer fit enough to cut peat for her range (Snell et al 2018).

For young adults in an England-based study who lived in a shared house with shared bills, there was a worry of instability of energy bills – the 'unexpected bill' that is higher than anticipated due to other householders energy use (Butler & Sherriff 2017).

3.1.5 Other drivers

In their study of energy vulnerability, Middlemiss & Gillard (2015) identify six challenges for the fuel poor.

Two of the challenges, energy costs and supply issues, and stability of household income, fall under the categories of drivers discussed above, i.e. energy prices, and income and debt. A third, quality of dwelling fabric, is mentioned as part of energy efficiency but is not considered by Scottish Government to be a driver in its own right. However the other three challenges are additional: tenancy relations, social relations inside and outside the household, and ill health. Tenancy relations overlaps with quality of dwelling fabric with regards to resolving maintenance/repair issues, but also refers to limitation in choice of home in the social rented sector, and concerns about impermanence of tenancy. Social relations refers to households needs, social capital and support networks. Social support is covered in the next section on coping strategies. Lastly, ill health. Several other studies find that poor mental and physical health is both a contributing factor to fuel poverty and an outcome of it (Sherriff et al 2019; SAMH 2014; Mould & Baker 2017; De Haro & Koslowski 2013). Health, as well as learning difficulties, can affect a person's capacity to earn money, manage their finances including debt, understand bills, and use their heating systems effectively (Mould & Baker 2017).

In their analysis, Middlemiss & Gillard (2015) find that the above six challenges can either impede or empower the agency of the fuel poor by trapping households in current states of deprivation and leaving them vulnerable to future shocks, or by facilitating a pathway out of fuel poverty. Generally however, people who are energy vulnerable have limited agency to reduce their own vulnerability because of structural and institutional factors such as housing providers, housing stock, the benefits system and energy market (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

In a study focussing on the lived experience of women, situations were identified where women may be more at risk of fuel poverty. These were when having children, being a lone parent, and having a disability (Malone 2019).

3.2 Coping strategies

There are a wide variety of ways that research participants coped with their situation, psychologically and behaviourally.

In the Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick (2017) study with SHCS respondents, the researchers noticed a tendency to downplay difficulties they had mentioned earlier in the interview, perhaps from sense of shame or embarrassment. The participants reported they were 'managing' to afford their household bills as a result of careful financial planning and prudent use of fuel: limiting heating hours, and heating only the rooms used most often. Most participants did not plan their spending through use of a household budget, and had not switched provider in last 3 years. This was largely because they felt they were on a good enough tariff already, but some had limited or no awareness of providers other than the Big Six[5], and had lack of awareness or understanding about how to switch. Some regarded a positive relationship with existing supplier as more important than being on the cheapest tariff. Some tenants in PRS and SRS held the belief that the landlord had control over choice of supplier. Those with pre-payment meters tended to regard changing provider as a 'hassle' because it would require buying and activating new keys for their meter. Participants who had switched reported mixed experiences of the process, with some believing they were now paying more due to unanticipated fees associated with the changeover. Those with very positive experiences of considerable savings and effortless process had atypical detailed knowledge of the process and benefits of switching (Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick 2017).

Across a range of household profiles (lone parents, unemployed people, retired people, families), under-heating the home was a common practice to cope with not being able to afford their heating needs, with often only the living room and perhaps one bedroom heated for a few hours a day. In some cases the heating was turned off as the householder did not know how to use the timer (Melone 2019). Other coping strategies for keeping warm included putting on more clothes, sitting under a duvet, staying in bed, taking extra showers, turning on the oven, sleeping and living in one room, going out for example to the library or to other people's houses (De Haro & Koslowski 2013). However, the use of coping strategies was not necessarily perceived as negative. On the contrary, in the England-based study with young adult householders, the thought of slipping under their favourite blanket was a pleasant idea and a positive experience (Butler & Sherriff 2017).

There was a tendency to prioritise fuel bills over other areas of expenditure such as leisure activities and holidays, and reports of cutting back or going without food (Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick 2017; Trevisan et al 2014). A common dilemma due to tight budgets was making a choice between heating and food. Increases in food prices sometimes led to participants eating less as well as using less heating. Other choices related to spend on transport, clothing for children, and pet care (De Haro & Koslowski 2013). Expenditure was generally concentrated on those perceived as most 'in need' within the household - usually children, with adults skipping meals or not buying new clothes for themselves (Trevisan et al 20140. Sharing of food was a common coping strategy amongst refugees and asylum seekers (Lindsey et al 2010).

In an UK study on fuel poverty, older people regarded keeping warm as essential, yet their culture contributed to their living in cold homes. They lived frugally and usually turned heating off in daylight hours during winter. This was partly to keep fuel bills down but also due to a perception that economising on heating was a virtue, and that they could put on an extra jumper or wrap up in a blanket if necessary. The expectation that they could cope in this way came from experience of childhood and early adulthood spent in homes without central heating. It was also common practice to sleep in an unheated bedroom during winter and to keep windows open at night. For reasons of safety, ground floor bedroom windows would be shut, but reluctantly. There was a perception of generational difference in temperature preferences, with some participants worrying that their children keep their homes too warm. However, to avoid recriminations and arguments they would often turn up the heating when visits from children or grandchildren were expected. (Wright 2004). Similar findings emerged in a study in the Western Isles where participants took pride in their resilience toward cold conditions, with participants having memories of growing up in very cold houses and viewing that as the norm (Sherriff et al 2019). There was some conflicting evidence regarding age differences in energy awareness and behaviours: another study found younger single people were more likely to wear warm clothes, layer up and adapt their behaviours to stay warm than older participants (Malone 2019).

Low-income participants with children were very conscious of the importance of providing a warm home. Several noted that having children made them more conscious about housing conditions and made them more prepared to seek help. They described strict heating regimes that maximised children's warmth, for example heating the home according to the presence/absence of children in the home, around school hours, or at visiting times. The participants noted the additional fuel costs associated with having children (Snell et al 2018).

One study found some evidence of financial support from family members outside the household, for example borrowing money to help pay energy bills in the winter, and exchanging energy services with friends and family in times of need, for example washing and drying clothes at their house, or visiting them often to reduce their own heating costs (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

A study of young adult households in Salford found that participants described two psychological coping strategies. The first was framing undesirable or negative experiences as impermanent. An example was a student in shared accommodation who felt powerless to make changes to poor housing conditions. The second coping strategy was making efforts to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook with regards to present and future home life. (Butler & Sherriff 2017).

3.3 Support

A general finding was that households that have the greatest need for support are often those who are not accessing it (Citizen's Advice Scotland 2018a; Snell et al 2018). For example, disabled people and families often live in the poorest quality houses and have additional needs that require support throughout the retrofit process. As this can make it more expensive for scheme providers and installers, these households tend to get sidelined (Snell et al 2018).

Participants who reported struggling financially cited additional support needs such as direct financial support to increase income or lower bills. Groups more likely to report struggling financially or have problems heating their homes and who were likely to express a greater need for support were: households in PRS and SRS, in rural areas, those reliant on electric heating, and with working-age occupants (Citizen's Advice Scotland 2018b).

Low income and/or households with disabled members broadly fitted into four categories when it came to engaging with information and support services (Snell et al 2018):

  • those who actively sought out information, advice or support
  • those who respond to publicity
  • those who come across it through social networks
  • those who are directly referred

The importance of social networks and personal relationships was another key theme. Friends and neighbours can make difficult living conditions feel more tolerable but there were issues that a householder may not want to talk about with others, or it may be a technical problem that their networks were not knowledgeable about. In these situations, it could take extraordinary hardship before a householder sought professional help, with long periods during which they did not have the support to which they were entitled e.g. free installation of gas central heating (Darby 2017). Personal relationships were also developed with professional advisors. One elderly participant with failing eyesight and memory loss was heavily dependent on an energy advice centre to manage her heating systems and bills. The study found that these personal relationships were very important in the absence of other social support. (Darby 2017).

Around half the participants in the Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick (2017) study had sought or received advice or support in relation to fuel bills: typically informal help from family or friends, financial support from Government, advice from suppliers. There was occasional mention of energy efficiency agencies such as Energy Savings Trust or Warmworks. Almost all reported positive experiences. Several of those who had not sought or received support stated they would not know where/who to approach – these participants were also those who reported greatest difficulty in affording their bills. Most participants in the study stated they would welcome support, advice or guidance in relation to their fuel bills e.g. to reduce bills by switching tariff or supplier, using heating more efficiently, or changing fuel type (those in rural areas off-gas grid).

In the study with refugees, the participants reported having a good understanding of how to access advice on dealing with fuel suppliers. Those experiencing difficulties with fuel bills had sought advice and most had been supported by money advice services to arrange suitable payment terms with utility companies (Lindsey et al 2010).

Not all participants in the studies reported positive experiences of receiving support. For example, householders with electric heating who had accessed energy advice reported inconsistencies in the messages promoted, and in some cases contradictory views on the appropriateness of tariff products (Citizen's Advice Scotland 2018b; Energy Action Scotland 2018). In a study of council tenants with electric heating, some research participants stated that the heaters had not been serviced in years and that the council was not keeping on top of necessary repairs, both to the fabric of the building and to the heaters themselves (De Haro & Koslowski 2013)

There were contradictory findings around the best method for support. In the Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick (2017) study the preferred methods of receiving or accessing support were online or by post. However, a summary of case evidence from across the Citizen's Advice network in Scotland found that complex issues related to electric heating, in conjunction with householder vulnerabilities, were judged to be best resolved with face-to-face and in-home advice by 'trusted intermediaries' (Energy Action Scotland 2018; Citizen's Advice Scotland 2018b). This point was made in other studies. A preference for face-to-face advice to discuss their specific needs was expressed by participants in the study with low income households and those with disabled members (Snell et al 2018). The personal rapport and trust that is developed between client and advocate was found to be a critical element in realising further benefits such as clients becoming more empowered (Baker et al 2019). Positive relationships like these were regarded in the Western Isles study as a catalyst in helping the project to progress: islanders referred their neighbours as participants in the project, based on a relationship of trust, thus widening the project's reach (Sherriff et al 2019).

There were reports of gaining peace of mind and satisfaction from knowing they could call upon the energy advice service at any time (Darby 2017). Greater understanding of bills and heating systems with the support of advisors in some instances had a dramatic positive impact on the participants' confidence and sense of agency and feeling of being able to cope with future problems (Darby 2017).

3.4 Impact of policies, and changes that will make a difference

Households in need are not always eligible for help. For example, disabled people who have not been able to access the disability benefits used as eligibility criteria, elderly people with small occupational pensions, and self-employed people who struggled to prove eligibility in circumstances where their income fluctuated significantly by month and year (Snell et al 2018; Wright 2004).

Elderly participants tended to be unable to distinguish between the different grant programmes, and assumed that if they had been unsuccessful in their application for one programme there was no point applying for another, even if the grant was for a different type of support and had different criteria (Wright 2004). Some participants in the Snell et al study also held the view that failed attempts to get energy efficiency support in the past due to ineligibility meant that there was no point in applying to current schemes, even if their circumstances had changed or the eligibility criteria had changed (Snell et al 2018).

The study with refugees noted that once asylum seekers have leave to remain, new refugees have 28 days to vacate UKBA accommodation and access mainstream benefits and services. A negative aspect of the transition from asylum seeker to refugee status is the short time between having utility bills covered by the UKBA support package to having responsibility for utility bills in their new accommodation. Most of the research participants felt there could be more support during this time to help people understand that their fuel bills would be a significant part of their expenditure (Lindsey et al 2010).

In the study of young adult households in England, the research participants frequently seemed to reject a sense of vulnerability, situating negative experiences in the past, and framing their present and future circumstances in a positive and optimistic way. The researchers suggest that policy approaches directed at this demographic that reflect the way in which they conceptualise their experience, and that strategies that shift the focus away from vulnerability and towards empowerment, may be more effective (Butler & Sherriff 2017).