Lived experience of fuel poverty: evidence review

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

1. Introduction

This paper provides an overview of the current state of knowledge on the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland, drawing on both academic and grey literature. The review begins by exploring the definition of 'fuel poverty' and 'lived experience' and presents a brief assessment of the evidence base. It then discusses the evidence by four key themes:

  • drivers and influencing factors
  • coping strategies
  • support
  • how different policies impact on people, and what changes people think will make a difference

The paper concludes by presenting key findings from the review, and discusses further research possibilities.

1.1 Understanding fuel poverty

Approaches to studying fuel poverty vary but the concept of 'fuel poverty' is generally understood to mean the inability of certain households to acquire the energy services needed to live a decent and healthy life (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

1.1.1 Measurement and definitions

The Scottish Government uses the Scottish House Condition Survey (SHCS) to measure the level of fuel poverty in Scotland according to a technical definition, and to identify key characteristics of fuel poor households. This survey is the Scottish Government's main source of evidence on fuel poverty at national and local authority levels. Further insight is provided via the Advisory Panel and Partnership Forum that comprise various expert and stakeholder organisations including those that work with client groups in or risk of fuel poverty and that have members with direct experience of poverty. Two independent working groups, the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group and the Scottish Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force, previously looked at the issues of fuel poverty and made recommendations to Ministers. One of the high level recommendations related to the definition of fuel poverty, and as a consequence an independent academic review was commissioned and a new technical definition proposed. This definition was debated in Parliament as part of the Fuel Poverty Bill. The Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 11th June 2019, and The Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act received Royal Assent on 18 July 2019.

The previous statutory definition of fuel poverty designates a household as being in fuel poverty if, in order to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, it would be required to spend more than 10% of its income (including Housing Benefit or Income Support for Mortgage Interest) on all household fuel use. This is known as the 10% definition.

The new Act defines a household to be in fuel poverty if more than 10% of its net income (after housing costs) is required to heat the home and pay for fuel costs, AND if after deducting fuel and childcare costs and disregarding the value of specified benefits which are received for care need or disability, the remaining net income is insufficient to maintain an acceptable standard of living for the members of the household, defined as 90% of the UK Minimum Income Standard (MIS). There is a MIS uplift for remote rural and island areas to take into account their higher cost of living. If more than 20% of net income is needed, the household is defined as being in extreme fuel poverty.

The Bill provides for three enhanced heating regimes for households likely to be most affected by the adverse outcomes of living in a colder home: one with higher temperatures, one with longer heating hours, and one with both. The Scottish Government is currently consulting[1] on which households these heating regimes should be applied to when calculating levels of fuel poverty.

1.1.2 Drivers

Extending Boardman's (1991) original work, 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. Most of the knowledge about these drivers comes from technical data and quantitative household surveys. However, fuel poverty is increasingly recognised to be not a technical problem but a multi-dimensional complex phenomenon (Baker et al 2018). Other factors such as mental health and social relations influence how energy is used in the home and how finances are managed, and households also move in and out of fuel poverty as conditions and circumstances change (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015; Kearns et al 2019). These other aspects are less amenable to investigation using quantitative methods and are consequently less well understood.

1.1.3 Qualitative approach

Qualitative research investigates what life is like for people in fuel poverty, and how they can be best supported. Such research can help us understand results in quantitative data. For example, the SHCS 2017 finds that only 17% of households identified as fuel poor according to the previous definition[2] regard keeping warm enough in winter as either a bit of a problem or a serious problem, with only 5% stating that the reason heating the home is difficult is because they can't afford it. Qualitative research finds that people may have different understandings of the survey questions (Citizen's Advice Scotland 2018a), or that they think about the condition of fuel poverty in a way that does not match the framings of the technical definition (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015). For example, although not Scotland-specific, there is evidence from one fuel poverty study that young adult participants did not conceive of themselves as experiencing any form of energy vulnerability and indeed often seemed to reject a sense of vulnerability (Butler & Sherriff 2017). A study with older people also found they preferred not to be seen as a passive victim unable to deal with the cold (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

This concept of energy vulnerability is increasingly being used in qualitative research on fuel poverty because it allows for a broader range of factors to be studied than just cost of fuel and levels of income and energy efficiency (Butler & Sheriff 2017; Longhurst & Hargreaves 2019). Whilst there is some variation in definition, 'energy vulnerability' can be understood as referring to the likelihood of a household being subject to fuel poverty, the sensitivity of that household to fuel poverty, and the capacity that household has to adapt to changes in fuel poverty - all of which are subject to structural constraints and enablers (Middlemiss & Gillard 2015).

The evidence from qualitative research reveals that even if people have very similar housing and household characteristics they will not all experience fuel poverty in the same way; there are multiple interacting factors influencing sensitivity and capacity to cope and adapt to changes.

1.2 Taking account of lived experience

The amount of qualitative research on fuel poverty has increased in recent years but it is still in the minority despite the multidisciplinary nature of the research community (Ambrose & Marchant 2017). However, the need for more qualitative research is recognised in research and policy communities. In response to feedback that the Scottish Government could improve its approach to tackling fuel poverty by taking account of those with lived experience of fuel poverty, the long term strategy will consult with people with lived experience of fuel poverty when making any regulations under the new Fuel Poverty Act (Fuel Poverty Strategy for Scotland 2018). These regulations should be informed by evidence. This review supports that aim by setting out what we currently know about the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland and identifying gaps in knowledge that can be addressed by new primary research.



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