Lived experience of fuel poverty: research
Qualitative research into the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland.
This concluding chapter revisits the research aims and research questions and reflects on the main findings with respect to each.
9.1 Enhance understanding of how people experience, make sense of, and respond to living in fuel poverty
The experience of those living in fuel poverty varied, both in terms of feelings of warmth in the home and attitudes towards paying for fuel. Reflecting the subjective nature of personal warmth, satisfaction with warmth in the home varied from those reporting no issues to those who were struggling to keep their home as warm as they would like. Most felt their heating costs were generally high, but the extent to which this caused concern varied, depending on individual circumstances and levels of financial resilience.
The way people responded to living in fuel poverty also varied, but most were generally mindful of the costs of fuel and heated their homes accordingly, while some limited their use of heating. Those living in poorly heated homes used a number of coping strategies to stay warm, including wearing more layers of clothes, blankets or sleeping bags, using hot water bottles, taping over vents, and parents co-sleeping with children. These strategies were not always enough to reach an adequate level of warmth.
Energy bills were often prioritised over other expenses and those struggling financially had made sacrifices including cutting back on food and other household essentials in order to pay for their heating. When faced with household bills they could not afford, those struggling financially had occasionally got into debt by borrowing money or by using their overdrafts.
In term of how participants made sense of living in fuel poverty, there was a tendency to downplay or normalise behaviour associated with living in a cold home. However, some participants reported feeling stressed and frustrated at being unable to afford to heat their homes to the temperature they would like. Further, negative impacts of living in underheated homes on physical health and wellbeing also emerged, particularly for those struggling financially.
9.2 Generate learning that can be used to inform the development of the fuel poverty strategy
Many findings from this study echo and reinforce those of previous research into fuel poverty. However, two areas unique to this study that add to the understanding of fuel poverty are in relation to smart meters and the Scottish Government’s policy ideas (see 9.6 and 9.8).
This research also highlighted that although all participants were categorised as being in fuel poverty or extreme fuel poverty, most said their fuel bills were expensive but “manageable”, meaning they could cover their costs using their own income. A few also said they rarely or never worried about covering their fuel or other household bills. This highlights that although fuel poverty is correlated with low income, it is not equivalent to income poverty.
This study also provides additional insights into the experience of those living in fuel poverty from a Scottish perspective. In particular it highlights some of the distinct experiences of those living in remote rural locations. All of those using oil and solid fuel as the main heating source were in remote rural locations. Their experiences show that living in these locations meant having limited options available when it came to their source of fuel. Participants felt that this lack of choice resulted in higher prices than might be available for customers on mains gas with multiple supplier options. While only based on a small number of participants in this study, this finding suggests that those in remote rural locations may face specific supply-based challenges when it comes to affordability of heating their home.
A further learning worth highlighting was in relation to EPC ratings. This research suggests that perceptions of how well homes retained heat did not closely mirror EPC rating data gathered from the SHCS. Participants that lived in homes with the lowest EPC rating (bands E, F and G) were all categorised as being in extreme fuel poverty. However, these participants tended to describe the heat retention of their homes as fair or good.
9.3 What is the experience of those to whom the Enhanced Heating Regimes applies and how does this differ from other households in fuel poverty?
Those with chronic health conditions and disabilities often had a greater sensitivity to cold and reliance on heating, making their experience stand out from others. Most of these participants were experiencing negative impacts on their physical and mental health when they could not afford to heat their homes adequately. As limiting their use of heating was often not an option, they had to cut back on other household essentials in order to keep their homes adequately warm.
Those aged 75 and over tended to keep their heating on all day in the winter. While some managed to do this comfortably, those on lower incomes often found it difficult to afford the costs of heating.
Families with children aged 5 or under were sensitive to inadequate heating regimes because of the need to ensure babies and young children were comfortable at specific times. Some experienced stress associated with living in underheated homes and struggling to cover their bills.
9.4 How does the experience of those in fuel poverty and extreme fuel poverty differ?
In terms of levels of warmth and comfort, heating regimes and impacts on health and wellbeing, there were no obvious patterns that showed the lived experience of those in households categories as in fuel poverty differed greatly from those categorised as in extreme fuel poverty.
Both groups also had similar experiences in terms of managing financially. However, the main differences between these groups was that those categorised as in extreme fuel poverty tended to pay for heating using prepayment or on receipt of bill, rather than direct debit. Those who were categorised as in (not extreme) fuel poverty, on the other hand, were typically using monthly direct debit.
Some of those in the extreme fuel poverty category also had fewer options available to them to make changes to reduce their bills, either because they lived in a property unsuitable for central heating or because decisions were ultimately out of their control (tenants) or the cost of improvements meant they could not afford to have them carried out (owner occupiers).
9.5 What is the experience of groups that have a high level of fuel poverty under the new definition?
Social renters that were unhappy with the heating in their homes attributed this, at least in part, to issues with the property and were frustrated when the property owner had not made the necessary improvements. However, some had already benefitted from improvements such as insulation, double glazing and boiler replacements paid for by their local authority/housing association.
Those on lowest incomes were often limiting heating use and using the most extreme coping strategies (like staying in one room or wearing outdoor clothing inside). In the worst cases they cut back on buying food and other essentials to pay for fuel, and some had to rely on friends and family for food or money for household expenses. Benefits such as the Warm Home Discount Scheme, Winter Fuel Payment and Cold Weather Payment were seen as particularly important for these participants.
Those aged 65 and over that were on a low pension were often struggling to make ends meet and limiting heating. Whether health issues were present and how socially connected people were, were more obvious factors in shaping older people’s ability to deal with fuel poverty.
Finally, those with electricity as their main source of heating perceived the cost of their heating systems as expensive. They also said electric storage heaters were difficult to adjust and made the air uncomfortably dry. The experiences of those in the most deprived areas were not notably different from those of other participants.
9.6 How are smart meters used in fuel poor households, and what is their impact?
Smart meters were used to automatically submit meter readings and In-Home Displays were used to monitor the amount of energy they were using. Participants found In-Home Displays useful in helping visualise how much energy they used and to better understand the amount of energy different appliances used. They were particularly useful when combined with a prepayment meter, providing a quick and convenient way of finding out how much energy credit remained. However, even where In-Home Displays were being used, the extent to which this had contributed to a change in behaviour was limited. Only a few had noticed a reduction in their energy bills as a result of smart meters. There was also some criticism of smart meters, including problems with their connectivity and accuracy. Among those without a smart meter, concerns were raised about their perceived inaccuracy, as well as data privacy and security.
9.7 What do people know/not know about advice services to help address fuel poverty, and what sources of information are currently used?
Awareness of and use sources of advice and support on home heating was low. Rather than using advice services, participants tended to access the information they needed online, or via word of mouth. Participants also often did not see themselves as needing to seek out support or advice or were cynical about the extent to which they would personally benefit from it.
9.8 What are people's views on policy ideas relating to how Scottish Government would improve its advice offer?
The four suggested policy ideas were met with a fairly lukewarm response. Most did not think they would use or need these types of support.
Only a few participants felt they would benefit from support switching supplier or payment methods. Perceived benefits included the potential for saving money as a result of switching supplier or to direct debit. However, those sceptical about the benefits of switching were less enthusiastic about this policy idea. Offering further support to those already receiving help via Warmer Homes Scotland was seen as a good idea in principal, but again participants generally assumed that they would not personally need this type of support.
No participants said they would use the referral to a benefits check. Several did, however, feel that this could be a good idea for vulnerable people who might be missing out on the benefits they were entitled to. Support to help make home improvements was generally well received, and a few participants said that they would make use of this service.
9.9 What are people’s views on how advice services could be improved?
People found it difficult to think of what types of advice and support would help them, as their starting point was one of low awareness about what support was available as well as a perception that they personally did not really need any help. Participants felt that there should be more information disseminated about support organisations and on the Warm Homes Discount Scheme (including when and how to apply). It was also suggested that any communications from Home Energy Scotland or Energy Savings Trust should emphasise their relationship with the Scottish Government and their impartiality.
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