A new definition of fuel poverty in Scotland: review of recent evidence

A report by a panel of independent experts who conducted a review of the definition of fuel poverty in Scotland.

Chapter 2 Ways of defining fuel poverty

2.1. Purposes of a definition

There are several commonalities in the phrases which are customarily used to describe what a definition should ideally accomplish; words which appear regularly in dictionaries and similar accounts include:

  • describe the nature of a phenomenon or state;
  • encompass its scope i.e. what is contained within it, and what is not;
  • give an account of its meaning;
  • explain its significance.

In the specific context of fuel poverty, it is commonly agreed (e.g. DuBois, 2012) that a formal definition of fuel poverty should enable information to be collected in 3 different areas:

  • extent - a definition should provide a means by which the prevalence of fuel poverty can be quantified, and hence monitored over time;
  • demography - it should provide a means of determining who the fuel poor are, according to criteria such as age, tenure, and household type;
  • geography - it should help identify where the fuel poor are most likely to be located.

Having enabled collection of data in these core areas, a definition of fuel poverty can then be used to:

  • formulate a Strategy for tackling fuel poverty;
  • shape Policies that achieve the Strategy's objectives;
  • guide programmes that address the Strategy's objectives.

Hence the relationship between definition, strategy, policy and implementation is ideally one in which they form an integrated system as illustrated in Figure 2.1 (Liddell, Morris, McKenzie & Rae, 2011).

In outlining the main ways in which fuel poverty has been defined, this Chapter considers the extent to which the different definitions have been able to:

  • capture the nature, scope, meaning and significance of the concept;
  • contribute directly to the formulation of strategy, policy and programmes in Scotland.

Figure 2.1.: An integrated system: Definition, strategy, policies, and implementation

Figure 2.1.: An integrated system: Definition, strategy, policies, and implementation

2.2. Origins of the term fuel poverty

One of the first definitions of fuel poverty was published in 1983. This definition was adapted from Townsend's (1979) classic definition of relative poverty, and is an early exemplar of Europe's longstanding endorsement of poverty as a relative rather than an absolute concept: people are deemed poor if they do not have access to the same income and resources which most of their neighbours enjoy.

First formal definition of fuel poverty

' Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in fuel poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the reasonably warm and well-lit homes which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved in the societies to which they belong'. (Bradshaw & Hutton, 1983).

Eight years later, Boardman (1991) published the following definition in her book entitled Fuel Poverty:

Boardman's 1991 definition

'[A fuel poor household is] unable to obtain an adequate level of energy services, particularly warmth, for 10 per cent of its income'.

2.3. The first technical definitions of fuel poverty used in UK jurisdictions

The first technical definitions of fuel poverty were based on ' a theoretical calculation of how much it would cost to heat a dwelling according to a specified heating regime and assumptions about use of lighting, hot water, cooking and appliances' (Scottish Government, 2012). These drew heavily on Boardman. The precision and explicitness of these definitions enabled - for the first time - the collection of detailed and accurate information on fuel poverty prevalence, including:

  • how many households were fuel poor ( extent);
  • what types of households are likely to experience fuel poverty ( demography);
  • where they were most likely to be found ( geography).

These calculations of energy cost led directly to the development of a UK-wide strategy to lessen the prevalence of fuel poverty, which was launched in 2001. This strategy adopted a definition of fuel poverty which then remained in place for over a decade in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

UK Fuel Poverty Strategy definition ( DEFRA, 2001)

'A fuel poor household is one that cannot afford to keep adequately warm at reasonable cost. The most widely accepted definition of a fuel poor household is one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use and to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth. This is generally defined as 21° C in the living room and 18° C in the other occupied rooms - the temperatures recommended by the World Health Organisation'.

Scotland adopted a similar definition in 2002:

Scotland's definition (Scottish Executive, 2002)

' A household is 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. The definition of a 'satisfactory heating regime' would use the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. For elderly and infirm households, this is 23° C in the living room and 18° C in other rooms, to be achieved for 16 hours in every 24. For other households, this is 21° C in the living room and 18° C in other rooms for a period of 9 hours in every 24 (or 16 in 24 over the weekend); with two hours being in the morning and seven hours in the evening. 'Household income' would be defined as income before housing costs, to mirror the definition used in the UK Households Below Average Income ( HBAI) Statistics'.

Within these strategies, targets were set for the eradication of fuel poverty within a defined timeline. But as the prevalence of fuel poverty in the UK escalated, both the 2010 and 2016 targets were missed. The Boardman-based definition became increasingly scrutinised and contested. A search for new ways of defining fuel poverty had gotten underway.

2.4. England's LIHC Indicator of Fuel Poverty

In 2010, the then UK Department for Energy and Climate Change commissioned a review of how fuel poverty might be defined. This was carried out by John Hills (2011/2012). England adopted the alternative which Hills recommended in 2012. This was the Low Income High Cost Indicator ( LIHC).

England's LIHC Indicator of Fuel Poverty (Hills, 2012)

' Under the LIHC indicator, a household is considered to be fuel poor if they have required fuel costs that are above average (the national median level), and were they to spend that amount, they would be left with a residual income below the official poverty line'.

However, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have - thus far - retained the Boardman definition.

2.5. Energy Precariousness

At the same time, mainland European researchers were exploring other options for a definition of fuel poverty. The search was mainly led by France, which adopted the term précarité energétique ( energy precariousness) in 2010. It loses much in translation, but in English it is described as follows:

Energy Precariousness

' A person in energy precariousness is anyone who meets, in its home, particular difficulties to have the necessary energy needs because of the inadequacy of its resources or of its housing conditions'. (DuBois, 2012).

The term is supplemented by a so-called ' practical definition…inspired by the UK definition, with a threshold of actual energy expenses of 10% of income to define who is actually in fuel poverty' (DuBois, 2012). More recently, France has begun to explore the possibility of replacing this practical definition with the LIHC indicator. However, their databases are not yet capable of providing estimates of required fuel costs, and so France still relies on actual energy expenditure or very broad models of required fuel costs, in order to calculate précarité energétique and estimate the LIHC indicator (Imbert, Nogues & Sevenet, 2016).

2.6. Consensual or subjective metrics

The European Union pioneered the implementation of 'consensual' indicators of fuel poverty embodied in the EU-SILC metric (Thomson, Snell & Liddell, 2106). This paved the way for a broader investigation of the adverse outcomes commonly associated with fuel poverty. In that sense, it laid the foundation for a more rights-based approach to defining fuel poverty, which has re-positioned fuel poverty into a wider socio-political agenda.

2.6.1. Consensual Fuel Poverty - EU-SILC

The term EU-SILC stands for European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions. The EU-SILC asks households to make subjective assessments about indicators of fuel poverty and whether these apply to them or not. Three questions in the EU-SILC are concerned with fuel poverty, and these are added together to produce a single score (0-3) denoting both the prevalence of fuel poverty in a particular Member State (a score of 1 or above), as well as the depth of fuel poverty (with a score of 3 being the most severe).

The EU-SILC metric

' Have you been unable to keep your home adequately warm in the past year through lack of money?

Have you been in arrears with utility bills in the last 12 months? [6]

Does your home have a leaking roof, or damp walls, or rotten windows?'

The EU-SILC definition approximates a technical definition, in that it yields prevalence data using a consistent metric ( extent), and can identify who is most likely to be fuel poor ( demography) and where they might be living ( geography). On occasion, scores are compared across the Member States (see Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1.1.: Fuel poverty in Europe: consensual indicator

Figure 2.1.1.: Fuel poverty in Europe: consensual indicator

The timeline from previous European surveys (2005-2013) can be seen in Figure 2.2.

Figure 2.2.: Fuel poverty in Europe: consensual indicator

Figure 2.2.1.: Fuel poverty in Europe: consensual indicator

Very recently, supplementary approaches to the EU-SILC have been explored as a means of gauging subjective perceptions of fuel poverty in Europe. These are showing promise, especially in terms of their predictive validity [7] (e.g. Thomson, Snell & Bouzarovski, 2017).

2.6.2. Energy Poverty, energy vulnerability and energy justice

The EU-SILC indicator rested on the idea that fuel poverty could be defined in terms of people's perceptions of energy burden, rather than in terms of energy costs relative to income. Over time, this indicator spurred the development of a completely new fuel poverty discourse - around concepts such as energy poverty, energy vulnerability and energy justice.

The term energy poverty was introduced by Stefan Bouzarovski in the mid-2000's.

Energy Poverty (Bouzarovski et al., 2017)

' A condition characterized by the inability of a household to secure materially and socially necessitated levels of energy services in the home. The meaning of the term 'necessitated' in this context is normally derived from relative and capabilities approaches, and normally refers to the level of energy services that enables full participation in the customs and practices that define membership in society, while maintaining a healthy indoor environment'.

Energy poverty is used synonymously with the term fuel poverty in the European Union, and has since also become a term frequently used to describe the global context of domestic energy insecurity.

Some years after energy poverty entered the lexicon, the term 'energy vulnerability' was coined to capture ' the likelihood of a household being able to identify and respond to any significant and/or long term changes in energy prices' ( CFU, 2016).

Energy Vulnerability

' To be neither in, nor at risk of, fuel poverty householders must be able to maintain a comfortable indoor environment; know how to identify and respond to challenges to maintaining that environment; be capable of responding to those challenges; and to perceive themselves as having the capacity and agency to do so'. ( CFU, 2016).

As noted by Thomson, Bouzarovski & Snell (2017):

' Studying energy vulnerability means examining risk factors that contribute to the precariousness of particular spaces and groups of people. One novelty of the vulnerability framework is its emphasis on the spatial and temporal dynamics of energy poverty, which recognizes that households described as energy poor may exit the condition in the future by a change in some of their circumstances, and vice versa.'

This approach views energy as a basic human right, and a matter of social justice (Gillard, Snell & Bevan, 2017). The logic of this position is that most requirements for a minimum quality of life in contemporary societies rely on heating and electricity. The debate includes questions about the global dimensions of energy justice (Sovacool et al, 2017), since a narrower national perspective ignores the way that energy consumption in more affluent economies often harms populations in other parts of the world.

Scottish publications in this domain include those of Keith Baker and Ron Mould, who point out that, while a key strength of Boardman's definition is its rootedness in robust evidence from building science, an unintended consequence is that the definition is insensitive to the human realities of being fuel poor, which are diverse in both origin and solution (Mould & Baker, 2017a). Consequently, Scottish discourse related to energy vulnerability focuses on alternative concepts such as exposure to fuel poverty, sensitivity to its impacts, and a household's adaptive capacities for coping with it (e.g. Mould and Baker, 2017b).

Treating the alleviation of fuel poverty as a matter of social justice means tackling the structural causes of inequality, rather than focusing mainly on technical and economic metrics of housing standards and energy efficiency. Whilst it does not offer a simple guide to how fuel poverty should be defined, it does offer insight into the wider societal impacts of such definitions, and can assist in aligning policy across the multiple areas of economy, poverty, energy, housing, climate change, and fairness.

There are 3 types of energy justice, which together provide a tool for policy-making, mainly through the investigation of weaknesses and failings of current practice:

  • distributional justice concerns the familiar inter-relations of income, energy prices and quality of housing; resolving distributional injustices (such as inability to pay for energy) requires fair procedures and recognition of different needs of social groups who experience disadvantage;
  • procedural justice concerns the means by which people can gain access to energy, including the contesting of injustices, such as through political representation or legal redress;
  • recognition justice draws attention to the different amounts of energy likely to be needed to produce the same quality of service for those with limited mobility, or long term ill health, or for families with young children: an energy justice framework would mean that this was recognised and addressed, rather than treated primarily as a matter of ability to pay (Gillard, Snell & Bevan, 2017).

In this way, proponents of this approach argue for recognition of the heterogeneity of those defined as fuel poor, and for participative procedures to decide the means to fairer outcomes. The principle of recognition means that policy makers have to consider how to devise services which are responsive to groups with different needs. By empowering those defined as vulnerable, ensuring greater voice and influence, policy could become more effective in overcoming stigma, challenging preconceptions and prejudices, understanding different needs and making policy fit for purpose.

The energy justice approach thus reframes fuel poverty into broader contexts than public health or energy efficiency, because it distances itself from the quantitative techno-science of traditional approaches. Instead, fuel poverty is interpreted as ' a condition in which a household lacks a socially-and materially-necessitated level of energy services in the home' (Bouzarovski, 2007). It focuses on the human consequences of energy poverty, interpreting these in the language of inequality, justice, and fairness.

2.7. Non-technical definitions

These are lay definitions written in plain English. Over time phrases that have appeared more often in these definitions are ' affordable energy' and ' reasonable cost', which highlight that energy costs need to be understood within the broader context of people's incomes and other essential expenditures.

Lay definitions are concerned with enhancing public understanding of, and engagement with, fuel poverty as a housing and public health issue. They are not customarily concerned with quantifying prevalence, severity or demography, and only occasionally with what thresholds should be used to define ' affordable energy' and ' reasonable cost'.

Energy Action Scotland

' Fuel poverty is the inability to afford adequate warmth in the home, defined as needing to pay more than 10 per cent of income on energy costs'.

The Housing (Scotland) Act of 2001 section 95

'A person lives in fuel poverty if that person is a member of a household with a low income living in a home which cannot be kept warm at a reasonable cost'.

2.8. Summary

The plethora of definitions used to capture what fuel poverty is can be organised into 3 broad categories:

  • Detailed technical definitions, such as the LIHC Indicator and the Boardman definition. These are almost epidemiological in nature, aiming to quantify how many households are in fuel poverty, how serious a problem it is, who is most likely to be at risk of it, and where they might live.
  • Subjective or consensual definitions. These have become increasingly concerned with justice, equality, and the lived experience of being fuel poor. They have the (often explicit) aim of reframing fuel poverty so that it moves beyond the technical confines of improved building fabrics and energy retrofits. Many qualitative accounts of fuel poverty have been published in this domain (e.g. Middlemiss & Gillard, 2015). However, apart from a few items which feature in the EU-SILC and EQLS, these approaches have not, as yet, yielded new metrics by which the prevalence of fuel poverty could be measured.
  • Simple lay descriptions written in plain English, of which a wide variety are in common use. These have no explicit interest in measurement or monitoring, but are wholly concerned with translating what is a complex and multi-faceted concept into language that the public can access and engage with. For that reason, they have an important place in the lexicon, but should ideally match as closely as possible the multi-faceted nature of the concept being described.

Viewed historically, the concept of fuel poverty has had a long heritage. Under Boardman's original 1991 conceptualisation, it was defined and measured in terms of the balance between required energy costs and income; more than 20 years later, much of this focus was retained in the LIHC metric, where residual income and energy cost thresholds became different means for quantifying the same two thresholds of income and energy cost. But newer developments have begun to reform the framework within which fuel poverty is understood, introducing ideas of consequence, not just cause, as well as much more socio-political concerns about energy justice, rights, and fairness. Ironically perhaps, these newer approaches resonate much more with the very earliest ethos surrounding fuel poverty - as a condition which adversely affected human wellbeing (Liddell, 2012).

Returning to how this Chapter started, it can be argued that the Boardman/Hills definitions capture some of the nature and scope of fuel poverty, and are more than able to guide estimates of its extent, demography, and geography. However, in requiring very precise information on household income and required energy costs, these two definitions rest on metrics which in fact cannot be measured precisely on the doorstep. Hence the link between definition, policy and practice has become somewhat tenuous. Deciding who is and who is not fuel poor for the purposes of implementing alleviation programmes has long rested on some rather weak proxies of the core metrics, such as benefit dependency and age. This becomes clearer in Chapter 4, where Scottish data are used to assess the links between income, required fuel costs, and who is classified as fuel poor.

Furthermore, it is only the consensual approaches to defining the term which grapple with the meaning and significance of what it is to be fuel poor, capturing issues of hardship, inequality and justice. These issues too should have a role in guiding Strategy, policies, and programmes. In that sense, a definition which is able to combine both technical and consensual approaches offers the prospect of a more rounded alternative.

Key Conclusions on ways of defining fuel poverty

There is a growing need to reframe how fuel poverty is defined in Scotland, with greater prominence being accorded to issues of energy injustice and inequality. Over and above the classic metrics of income and required energy cost, a new definition should capture the lived experiences of people affected by fuel poverty, especially those for whom energy costs incur enduring hardship and adversity.

In that context, a new definition should reflect a balanced combination of objective and consensus-based metrics. This combination is likely to point towards a greater diversity of causes and consequences, and hence a wider range of potential tools for alleviating fuel poverty than has hitherto been acknowledged.


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