Lived experience of fuel poverty: research

Qualitative research into the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland.

1. Introduction

Note on timing of the research relative to COVID-19:

The research was carried out in the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews were completed on 7 February 2020, before measures were put in place by the UK Government on 16 March 2020 advising people to work from home and avoid non-essential travel and contact.

Due to the timing to the research, findings do not reflect the impacts of COVID-19 such as increased time spent at home meaning potentially different patterns of fuel use, or differences in the affordability of fuel costs due to potential changes in financial circumstances. This report should therefore be read in this context, noting that it pre-dates the impacts likely to have been experienced by participants since they took part.

This report sets out findings from qualitative research into the lived experiences of fuel poverty in Scotland, carried out between late 2019 and early 2020. This introductory chapter outlines the background to the research, the research aims and questions, and the methodology used.

1.1 Background

1.1.1 Fuel poverty in Scotland

Under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 (section 88), the Scottish Government was committed to eradicating fuel poverty as far as practicably possible by November 2016. In June 2016, the Minister for Local Government and Housing informed Parliament that, based on the advice received from experts, it was unlikely that the statutory fuel poverty target would be met. This was confirmed by 2016 and 2017 fuel poverty rates, under the previous (2002) definition of fuel poverty, of 26.5% and 24.9% respectively.

The Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament on 26 June 2018 and the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019[5] received Royal Assent on 18th July 2019. It states that by 2040 no more than 5% of households will be in fuel poverty and no more than 1% in extreme fuel poverty in each local authority and Scotland as a whole. In addition, the median fuel expenditure gap[6] of households in fuel poverty in Scotland will be no more than £250 (in 2015 prices before adding inflation). The Scottish Government has also committed to the interim target of the overall fuel poverty rate being no more than 15% by 2030.

1.1.2 Measuring and understanding fuel poverty

The SHCS is the Scottish Government’s main source of data fuel poverty. The SHCS measures fuel poverty using quantitative data on dwelling and household characteristics, including information on household members, household income and data required to model energy consumption and fuel costs for each household. Household data is collected through the SHS social survey and physical dwelling data is collected in the follow-up SHCS physical survey. Both the social and physical data make up the SHCS dataset required to calculate the fuel poverty status of households and identify the key characteristics of those in fuel poverty.

The Scottish Government recognises four main drivers of fuel poverty:

  • energy prices
  • income
  • energy efficiency in the home
  • how energy is used in the home.

1.1.3 Definitions of fuel poverty

The previous statutory definition, introduced in 2002, designates a household as being in fuel poverty if, in order to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, it is required to spend more than 10% of its income (including Housing Benefit or Income Support for Mortgage Interest) on all household fuel use.

The Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019 sets outs out a new definition of fuel poverty. Under the new definition a household is in fuel poverty if, in order to maintain a satisfactory heating regime:

  • more than 10% of the household’s adjusted net income (after housing costs) is required for total fuel costs, and;
  • after deducting fuel costs, benefits received for a care need or disability and childcare costs, the household’s remaining adjusted net income is insufficient to maintain an acceptable standard of living (defined as 90% of the UK Minimum Income Standard)[7]. In remote rural, remote small town and island areas there is an uplift to the Minimum Income Standard to take into account higher living costs.
  • extreme fuel poverty follows the same definition except that a household would have to spend more than 20% of its adjusted net income (after housing costs) on total fuel costs to maintain a satisfactory heating regime.

Although fuel poverty is correlated with low income, it is not equivalent to income poverty. A sizeable proportion of households classed as fuel poor are not income poor (31% in 2018[8]) suggesting that other factors are in play such as the price of fuel required for space and water heating, the energy efficiency of housing and the use of fuel in households. However, findings from the 2018 SHCS show that fuel poverty does have an association with income and households in the lower income bands have the highest rates of fuel poverty: 95% for the bottom income band (less than £200 per week) and 55% for the 2nd bottom band (between £200 and £300 per week)[9].

1.1.4 Enhanced heating regimes

The fuel poverty calculation involves estimating the costs of heating a home to a satisfactory heating regime. There are four heating regimes that can be applied to households, one standard heating regime and three EHRs as described in The Fuel Poverty (Enhanced Heating) (Scotland) Regulations 2020[10]. Which heating regime applies to the household depends on the household composition and occupancy patterns.

The four new heating regimes are:

Enhanced heating regime 1, where living rooms (zone 1) are heated to 23°C and the rest of the dwelling (zone 2) is heated to 20°C for 16 hours every day. This will be applied to households where the dwelling is frequently occupied and at least one member of the household: is aged 75 or over, or has a long-term sickness or disability, or is in receipt of benefits received for a care need or disability.

Enhanced heating regime 2, where living rooms (zone 1) are heated to 23°C and the rest of the dwelling (zone 2) is heated to 20°C for 9 hours during weekdays and 16 hours on weekends. This will be applied to households where the dwelling is not frequently occupied and at least one member of the household: is aged 75 or over, or has a long-term sickness or disability, or is in receipt of benefits received for a care need or disability.

Enhanced heating regime 3, where living rooms (zone 1) are heated to 21°C and the rest of the dwelling (zone 2) is heated to 18°C for 16 hours every day. This will be applied to households where the dwelling is frequently occupied and at least one member of the household is aged 5 or under.

Standard heating regime, where living rooms (zone 1) are heated to 21°C and the rest of the dwelling (zone 2) is heated to 18°C for 9 hours during weekdays and 16 hours on weekends. This will be applied to all other households.

1.1.5 Lived experience of fuel poverty

The Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019 requires Scottish Ministers, in preparing the fuel poverty strategy, to consult with individuals who are living, or who have lived, in fuel poverty in Scotland. In 2019, the Scottish Government published an evidence review of what was known so far about the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland. The review identified a number of patterns, summarised as:

  • households with the greatest need were often not asking for, not eligible for, or not getting any support with the cost of heating their homes
  • instability of income and unexpected bills was more of a concern for some than the actual level of income or bill, leading to a preference for pre-payment meters
  • tendency for low financial resilience and short-term financial management
  • general lack of knowledge about how to use heating systems, particularly electric heating, effectively
  • additional energy and support needs of disabled people were often not recognised, and these additional needs made these households more costly for service providers to support
  • specific circumstances of refugees meaning they were not well prepared for managing their energy use and bills
  • gendered and generational differences in perceptions of warmth and comfort, and tensions between households about energy use
  • importance of social networks and personal relationships for support with coping and dealing with problems
  • distrust or difficult relationships with housing providers or landlords and private energy companies, and relationships of trust with intermediaries such as energy advisors
  • preference to think of oneself as coping well and some strategies for keeping warm were not considered as negative.

1.2 Research aims and questions

Against this background, the Scottish Government commissioned qualitative research into the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland, to build upon existing knowledge and address gaps in evidence.

The overall research aims were to:

  • enhance our understanding of how people experience, make sense of, and respond to, living in fuel poverty
  • generate learning that can be used to inform the development of the fuel poverty strategy
  • test policy ideas to find out how well the ideas are received and understood by those with lived experience, and how the policies might impact upon them
  • meet the requirements of the legislation i.e. to consult with those with lived experience.

A number of questions were developed to guide the research, informed by the review of existing evidence produced by the Scottish Government:

1. What is the experience of households in fuel poverty to whom the Enhanced Heating Regimes apply, and how does this differ from other households in fuel poverty?

2. How does the experience of those in fuel poverty and extreme fuel poverty differ?

3. What is the experience of groups that have high levels of fuel poverty under the new definition?

4. How are smart meters used in fuel poor households, and what is their impact?

5. a) What do people know/not know about advice services to help address fuel poverty, and what sources of information are currently used?

b) What are people's views on policy ideas relating to how Scottish Government would improve its advice offer?

c) What are people’s views on how advice services could be improved?

The policy ideas[11] tested as part of research question 5 were:

  • Support to help people switch to a different energy supplier or switch to paying by direct debit.
  • Further support for people already receiving help through programmes like Warmer Homes Scotland, such as switching suppliers, advice on using heating efficiently and maintaining good air quality.
  • A referral for a benefits check, so that they can check whether they were eligible for any benefits that they may not know about.
  • Further support to help make home improvements, including help with loft clearances, moving furniture or lifting flooring to facilitate energy efficiency work.

In exploring the lived experience of fuel poverty, this research largely concentrated on use of, payment for and attitudes towards heating the home. The fuel poverty estimate takes into account the energy used for space heating (the heating of rooms and spaces within the home)[12] as well as water heating, lighting and appliance use. Given that space heating is the largest component of energy consumption underpinning the fuel poverty estimate, the research concentrated on this aspect of energy use, while still allowing experiences relating to other aspects to emerge through the discussions where relevant.

1.3 Methodology

Qualitative research was carried out between November 2019 and February 2020 with people identified as living in fuel poverty across Scotland. A qualitative approach was used as it provided the opportunity for in-depth exploration of the experiences of fuel poverty, including insights into how people felt about, made sense of and responded to living in fuel poverty, and the reasons for this.

The research consisted of 40 in-depth interviews with participants living in households categorised as in either fuel poverty or extreme fuel poverty (under the new definition) according to the SHCS 2016-18. There were three stages to the fieldwork:

  • a first interview (20 to 30 minutes) conducted by telephone. This helped to build a relationship with the participant and form an initial understanding of their circumstances.
  • a heating diary task to be completed after this interview by the participant. They were asked to note down their heating use over three days and to rate how warm or cold they felt in the home on those days.
  • a second interview (60 to 90 minutes), around one week after the first telephone interview, to explore participants’ experiences of fuel poverty in further depth.

This three-stage approach allowed for a detailed picture of the lived experience of fuel poverty to be built, while avoiding over-burdening participants with a longer single interview.

1.3.1 Sampling

To identify participants a sample was purposively drawn from the SHS (of which the SHCS is a module) re-contact database[13]. This is a database of people who have previously taken part in the SHS/SHCS and agreed to be re-contacted for future research. The sample design is shown in Appendix A: Sample design.

Participants were recruited from across Scotland based on a range of criteria:

  • type of location (Large urban, Other urban / non-remote rural, and Remote rural and small towns)
  • level of fuel poverty (fuel poor and extreme fuel poor as per the latest definitions)
  • households in fuel poverty where an EHR was applicable
  • household type (35+ with no children under 16 at home, families with children aged 6-16, families with children aged 5 and under, and young adult households – under 35 with no children at home)
  • tenure, to cover homeowners, those renting privately from a landlord (referred to in this report as “private renters”) and those renting from a local authority or housing association (referred to as “social renters”)
  • dwelling type (e.g. tenement flat or detached house)
  • main heating fuel (e.g. mains gas, electricity, sold fuel).

Consultation on the EHRs was still ongoing at the time of fieldwork. Therefore, it was agreed with the Scottish Government that, for the purposes of this study, households where an EHR would apply were those with someone aged 75 or older, children aged 5 or younger, or with a chronic health condition or disability.

The following table shows the number of participants that were in households categorised as in fuel poverty, extreme fuel poverty and how many would have an EHR applied.

Table 1. Sample profile
Households where an EHR was applicable Households where an EHR was not applicable Total
In fuel poverty 16 6 22
In extreme fuel poverty 11 7 18
Total 27 13 40

Full sampling criteria and a more detailed sample profile, including dwelling type, tenure and age of participants, are included in Appendix B: Profile of achieved sample.

1.3.2 Recruitment

Recruitment was carried out by telephone using recontacts from the 2016, 2017 and 2018 SHS. The recruitment was carried out by an Ipsos MORI telephone interviewer who was provided with a script covering the purpose of the research and what taking part would involve. It was explained that participation was entirely voluntary and that participants could change their mind about taking part at any stage. A screening questionnaire (see Appendix C: Recruitment screener) was used to check peoples’ details were still correct. This included checking whether their financial circumstances had improved significantly since they took part in the survey. Those that said yes were not included in the study. This was to try and ensure that everyone taking part would still be in fuel poverty.

Participants were offered a £35 high street voucher as a thank you for taking part.

1.3.3 Fieldwork

Of the 40 in-depth interviews, 30 of these were carried out face-to-face in locations in, or easily reached from, the Central Belt. Telephone interviews were used for the remaining ten interviews in island and other more remote locations. The locations of interviews are showing in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Map showing location of interviews
A map shows that the interviews were spread across different parts of Scotland.

All interviews were undertaken by a core team of four researchers, all of whom contributed to the analysis of the data.

All interviews were structured around a discussion guide (see Appendix D: Discussion guide: first interview and Appendix F: Discussion guide: second interview) and a heating diary task (Appendix E: Heating diary) designed by Ipsos MORI and Alembic Research in consultation with the Research Advisory Group (RAG). As well as exploring in depth the day-to-day lived experience of people in fuel poverty, the interviews also covered smart meters, support and advice services, and new potential policy ideas aimed at helping people out of fuel poverty.

1.3.4 Analysis

Interviews were audio-recorded with the consent of participants, and detailed notes were made by the researchers. The second (60 to 90 minute) interviews were also transcribed.

The transcripts and interviewer notes were then systematically analysed to identify the key themes that emerged in relation to the research questions and the questions in the discussion guide, along with key points and illustrative verbatim comments. These themes and emerging findings were recorded in Excel. This ensured that the analysis of the data was rigorous, balanced and accurate, and that key messages or concepts were brought out. It was also flexible enough to allow links and connections across different themes or sub-themes to be made, and for moments of interpretive insight and inspiration to be recorded. The analysis stage also incorporated findings from the Evidence Review (provided by the Scottish Government at the tendering stage), by looking at where findings either corroborated or contradicted previous studies.

The final stage of analysis was to produce a selection of “participants’ stories” which consist of detailed descriptions of the experiences of some of the participants involved in the research to help further convey some aspects of the lived experience of fuel poverty.

1.3.5 Identifying groups with levels of fuel poverty

In response to the third research question outlined in section 1.2 Research aims and questions, analysis of the 2018 SHCS[14] identified the following groups as having higher levels of fuel poverty:

  • social renters (39% were fuel poor, compared with 20% of private renters, 23% of those that owned outright and 10% of those on mortgage)
  • older households and other households without children (28% and 27% compared with 17% among families with children)
  • households in the lowest income bands (e.g. 95% of lowest income band are fuel poor)
  • households using electricity as their main source of heat (43% compared with e.g. 23% of gas households)
  • those in the most deprived area based on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation[15] (SIMD) (33% in 15% most deprived areas compared to 23% others).

These categories were therefore used to analyse the experiences of those groups with high levels of fuel poverty under the new definition. Only four participants used electricity as their main source of heating, meaning the extent to which any differences between these and other participants can be identified is limited. We have therefore only commented on this group where a specific aspect relating to the use of heating was mentioned.

1.3.6 Limitations

As with any study, there were a number of limitations to the research.

Firstly, the findings from qualitative research are not intended to be generalisable to the wider population, therefore this research does not claim to represent the wider views of all those living in fuel poverty in Scotland. Where prevalence of a particular view is described in this report, using terms such as “most”, “some” or “a few”, this relates only to the sample of research participants and not the wider population.

Second, while the sample of participants was designed to ensure a mix of household characteristics and individual’s circumstances (see 12 above), the number of participants from certain groups were lower than anticipated. This included those with electric heating as their main source – four participants fell into this category. It also included households in which occupants were aged under 35 with no children (referred to as “young adult households”) – only one participant fell into this category. As a result, the extent to which the views of these groups are represented in the data is limited.

Finally, while the methodology allows for in-depth exploration of participants’ perceptions, it is unable to capture their innermost thoughts. Therefore when describing the way they feel about issues such as comfort, warmth, their financial circumstances and the affordability of their heating, they may play down issues they are facing because they are embarrassed or ashamed to talk about them.

1.3.7 Presentation of participants’ views

In order to protect anonymity, participants are identified using pseudonyms. Quotes from participants are included to illustrate points made throughout the report. Key characteristics (such as household type, tenure, urban/rural classification, and whether they are in fuel poverty or extreme fuel poverty) are also included beneath each quote to further contextualise the participants’ views.

1.4 Report structure

The remainder of this report is structured as follows:

Chapter 2 provides a sample or participants’ stories to illustrate their lived experiences

Chapter 3 explores perceptions of warmth, levels of comfort, heating regimes and routines and coping strategies.

Chapter 4 covers heating systems and energy efficiency including satisfaction with different types of heating systems and how well participants feel their homes retain heat.

Chapter 5 covers paying for heating. It describes the extent to which participants were coping or struggling with heating costs; and views on the different methods used to pay for heating.

Chapter 6 covers smart meters and the extent to which they had an impact of people living in fuel poverty.

Chapter 7 covers the actions participants might take in relation to improving how they heat their homes; and awareness and perceptions of sources of advice and support.

Chapter 8 covers participants’ views on potential policies that the Scottish Government could put in place to support those in fuel poverty, as well as further suggestions of what types of support would make a difference for them personally.



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