Lived experience of fuel poverty: research
Qualitative research into the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland.
7. Taking action and finding support
This chapter looks at the steps taken to help tackle or respond to the challenges associated with fuel poverty. It first explores the actions people might take to improve how they heat their homes and how they pay for heating, as well as barriers that inhibit them from doing so. It then outlines awareness and perceptions of support and advice services for those in fuel poverty.
7.2 Taking action to improve home heating
The research explored a number of potential actions that people might take to find the most suitable way of heating their homes and paying for heating.
The actions most commonly used tended to be those without a financial cost, for example changing supplier or payment method. Around two thirds of participants had taken at least one of those actions. It was less common for participants to report more expensive actions such as changing their heating system, fuel type or buying energy efficient appliances. Where energy efficiency improvements had been made, such as insulation, this was usually as a result of support from government-funded schemes or from social landlords.
Views on the impact of these potential actions are outlined in turn below.
7.2.1 Switching suppler
Experience of switching supplier ranged from those who regularly checked online comparison websites to find the best deal, to those who had switched following an increase in their energy cost, and those who agreed to switch after having been approached by a new supplier. Saving money was the main motivation for switching.
There were mixed views on the effectiveness of switching supplier. Those that were positive about their own experience of switching felt they had saved money as a result. However, this was outweighed by more negative views, which were often linked to a general mistrust of energy companies. There was a belief that energy companies offered low prices initially, but these were often based on an underestimate of a household’s actual energy use and therefore increased over time. Participants referenced personal experiences and those of friends and acquaintances who had faced unexpectedly high bills after switching suppliers.
“I think the companies are too greedy. It's all profit for them…They all promise you the lower bills, there will be this, there will be that. But once you change then the next thing their prices all go up.”
Anna, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Remote rural, FP, EHR
Due to the perceived risk of suppliers increasing prices over time, there was a fear that switching suppliers actually posed a financial risk which those on the lowest incomes did not feel they could afford to take.
As well as these financial concerns, others had not switched supplier because they simply felt content with their current supplier, or believed their current supplier was already the cheapest.
7.2.2 Switching tariff
Participants generally assumed that they were already on the best tariff with their supplier. When probed further, however, they were often uncertain as they had not compared tariffs or were not aware of the possibility of changing. Those that had benefitted from changing tariffs had typically done so at the point of switching suppliers, rather than switching tariffs with their existing supplier.
Mirroring the views on switching suppliers, there was a degree of scepticism about the potential benefits of switching tariff. Those who were distrustful of energy suppliers felt that all tariffs were likely to be similar and doubted the potential to save money by switching:
“I just can’t think I will get anything less than £20 a week for heating and electricity, I can’t see it. As I say, I think you're always frightened you may be worse off with another supplier. I had a friend she was in Wales actually and she changed suppliers, and she said it's a nightmare, I was much worse off.”
Eilidh, 35+ no children, Private renter, Remote rural, EFP
7.2.3 Changing method of paying for heating
As discussed earlier, there were mixed opinions on the benefits of changing the method by which people pay for their heating. Those who had switched from prepayment meters to direct debit described having saved money as a result. However, there were major concerns among those currently using prepayment meters that direct debit would make it more difficult for them to manage their money. Among those who were open to moving to direct debit, other barriers included a lack of knowledge about how to switch or simply not getting around to it.
7.2.4 Home energy efficiency improvements
Among those that had installed insulation and/or double glazing, there were mixed views on the impact it had had. Some believed the measures made homes feel warmer, while others had the view that it had not made a noticeable difference.
Among owner occupiers, the cost of making energy efficiency improvements such as double glazing and insulation was cited as a potential barrier to taking these actions. That said, several participants mentioned having benefitted from free or discounted insulation through government schemes to help make homes warmer when they had the opportunity. None of these participants referred to the specific government scheme they had benefitted from, instead simply referring to getting insulation installed “by the government” or via “a grant”. It was therefore not clear whether they had benefitted from Warmer Homes Scotland, Home Energy Efficiency Programmes for Scotland (HEEPS) Area Based Schemes or other sources.
For private and social tenants, barriers mainly related to the ability to make decisions about changes to their property, including energy efficiency measures. Experience of home energy efficiency improvements are discussed in more detail in chapter three.
The use of energy efficient lightbulbs was fairly common, whereas the cost of replacing larger appliances was widely seen as prohibitive. However, when appliances broke and needed to be replaced, there was evidence that participants took energy efficiency into account.
7.2.5 Changing heating systems or fuel types
Participants were largely satisfied with their heating system and fuel type and therefore showed little interest in changing these. The main exceptions were most of those without central heating, including those using electric storage heaters or solid fuel as their primary heating source. Those that did want to move to gas central heating felt it was prohibitively expensive.
As with installing insulation, both private and social renters felt restricted in the extent to which they could change their heating systems. That said, private and social renters felt somewhat advantaged in relation to the heating systems, as they knew that their landlord would be responsible for covering the cost of fixing or replacing a faulty boiler. There were examples of participants who had already had their boilers replaced or upgraded by their local authority or housing association.
7.2.6 Contacting landlords, councils or housing associations
Social renters were more likely than private renters to have contacted landlords about their home heating. However, satisfaction with the response provided by councils or housing associations varied, with some negative accounts of queries being unanswered or issues not being resolved. For example, one participant described having draughty windows and doors but said their council refused their requests to get these replaced. Another explained that despite contacting the council “constantly” about issues with their heating system, it was difficult to get the council to take the problem seriously and spend money on fixing it properly:
“I literally must have had the gas men out, I'm not exaggerating, in a nine-week period, about ten times, till finally I was quite impolite about it…it has always got to be extreme with them before they will come out”
Kimberley, Family with children 5 and under, Social renter, Large urban, FP, EHR
Private renters described being reluctant to bother their landlord, particularly if they were on good terms, because they did not want to be seen as difficult or demanding which might sour the relationship with their landlord. This was often combined with a sense of acceptance of issues with heating, caused by a belief that not much that could realistically be done to resolve the issue. This finding echoes that of Ambrose et al. (2016), referenced in the Evidence Review, who highlight a similar reluctance on the part of tenants to contact their landlords.
7.3 Sources of information and support
This section answers the research question: “What do people know/not know about advice services to help address fuel poverty, and what sources of information are currently used?”
7.3.1 Financial support
Participants mentioned different types of financial support that they had received to help keep their home warm, including the Warm Home Discount Scheme, the Winter Fuel Payment and the Cold Weather Payment. Schemes to help make insulation and other home improvements more affordable were also mentioned, although people did not refer to them by name and there was low awareness of who exactly had funded this assistance.
Among those who received the Warm Home Discount Scheme, this was generally viewed as being very helpful and participants were appreciative of this. In cases like Catherine’s, it was essential for participants to get by and they could not imagine being without it:
“I couldn't be without it… if I was running a bath every night normally [like I should be] I don't know how I could afford it.”
Catherine, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP, EHR
However, there was also a concern raised about the application process for the Warm Home Discount Scheme, since there were cases of participants who, in previous years, had been sent a letter reminding them that they were eligible and informing them of the deadline, but had not received one this year. This had created worry that they had missed out on the chance to receive the payment altogether.
Similarly, the Winter Fuel Payment was typically seen to make a big difference among those who received it. People used it in different ways, with some making sure it was exclusively spent on heating, for example using it to stockpile coal for the Christmas period, whereas others viewed it more as a general contribution to their living costs. However, there was some confusion surrounding the application process, including what time of year to apply and when it would be paid.
Other forms of financial support included loans for home improvements, for example one participant used a boiler scrappage scheme and had an interest-free loan to help them install a new boiler.
7.3.2 Awareness and use of advice services
Awareness of sources of advice and support on home heating was low, including of Home Energy Scotland, the Energy Savings Trust, Energy Action Scotland and local energy advice centres. Awareness of Citizens’ Advice Scotland was higher, although participants did not typically associate it with advice on heating or energy costs.
Low levels of awareness of support and advice services were reflected in low levels of use of these services – only a few had made contact with these sources. Those who had contacted support organisations described having used them for personalised support, such as a virtual tour where a Home Energy Scotland advisor talks you through ways to make savings in different areas of your home over the phone. One participant had an advisor from Home Energy Scotland visit their home to assess whether they could install a biomass boiler. Both these examples related to services that could not be easily accessed online.
Participants were more likely to have contacted their energy supplier than any of the independent sources listed above. Most participants had contacted their energy supplier at some point, typically if they had issues with their supply or to query their bills. A similar finding was seen in a study by Ambrose et al (2019) which found that, among hard to reach groups, around half had made contact with energy suppliers while around one in five had contacted an independent advice service.
Rather than using advice services, participants tended to access the information they needed online, or via word of mouth. Examples were given of using Google to find information, comparison sites to find the best tariffs, and online forums and reviews to find trusted suppliers. Word of mouth, particularly via family and friends, was highlighted as a way of hearing about good energy deals or free insulation schemes in their area. For those who did not use the internet, support networks took on even greater importance. For example, one participant who did not use the internet described talking to friends and neighbours about how they paid for their heating and how much was normal to be paying in their area.
Other sources of information included being approached by door to door salespeople, watching television programs or seeing adverts for different suppliers.
7.3.3 Barriers to accessing support and advice
There were three main reasons why participants had not sought support with their heating.
Firstly, also noted in the Evidence Review, participants did not necessarily consider themselves in need of support and advice. This was particularly the case for those who felt their heating systems worked well, their homes were well insulated and they could afford the amount of heating they needed to feel comfortable. Others showed a tendency to downplay and normalise the impacts of fuel poverty, meaning they did not perceive themselves as needing help. There was a perception that their situations were normal or acceptable, or that they were in a better position than others. Some also felt they would not qualify for financial support, because of their income level or the fact that they were not in receipt of benefits.
Secondly, there were low levels of awareness of what support and advice was available or how to go about accessing it. More specifically, participants described a lack of awareness of impartial sources of information and support, not associated with energy companies. These participants were open to seeking advice on their heating but were concerned about which organisations they could trust.
Thirdly, there was also a degree of scepticism about whether support and advice would have any significant impact on them, unless the cost of fuel was reduced or they received financial support towards paying for their heating.
One participant faced further barriers as a result of a hearing impairment. He struggled to use the phone because of his hearing impairment, which in turn made contacting support organisations a lot more difficult for him.
7.4 Future support needs
When asked about what kind of advice would help them the most, people found it difficult to think of this unprompted, as their starting point was one of low awareness about what support was available or a perception that they did need any help or advice. The few suggestions that were made related to heating systems, specifically how best to use electric storage heaters efficiently, and information on how to budget effectively.
It was suggested that existing support organisations could be made more visible to help raise awareness of their potential benefits, for example by advertising on television or online. It was highlighted that measures such as sending letters to remind people when to apply for the Warm Homes Discount Scheme would also help ensure they could claim the support they were entitled to.
It was also suggested that any communications from Home Energy Scotland or Energy Savings Trust should emphasise their relationship with the Scottish Government, making clear that they are impartial and independent of energy companies. It was felt that the impartial nature of these sources made them appear more trustworthy.
7.5 Summary of differences between groups
7.5.1 Fuel poverty vs extreme fuel poverty
In terms of taking action, there was little variation between those in households categorised as being in fuel poverty and those categorised as in extreme fuel poverty. However, as noted in section 5.4 Summary of differences between groups, there was a higher use of prepayment among those in extreme fuel poverty and high levels of satisfaction with it as a payment method. These participants were therefore unlikely to switch payment methods, as they associated direct debits with a loss of control over their finances.
7.5.2 Households to which an Enhanced Heating Regime applied
In terms of those in households to whom an EHR applied, participants aged 75 and over were particularly unlikely to have switched suppliers or want to do so. This age group typically felt content with their supplier as they had used them for a very long time and therefore did not see a need to change. They also showed a lack of interest in looking for information online.
7.5.3 Those with high levels of fuel poverty under the new definition
Those on the lowest income were less likely than other participants to have switched suppliers. For those on the lowest incomes, there was a fear that switching suppliers actually posed a financial risk because of a perceived risk of suppliers increasing prices over time.
For social tenants (as with private tenants), barriers to making changes to their heating systems or energy efficiency mainly related to the ability to make decisions about changes to their property, including energy efficiency measures. However, some social renters felt advantaged in relation to the heating systems, as they knew that their landlord would be responsible for covering the cost of fixing or replacing a faulty boiler. There were examples of participants who had already had their boilers replaced or upgraded by their local authority or housing association.
In terms of support and advice, tenants (both private and social) were more likely than owner occupiers to say they would go online for information. This may reflect the fact that younger people are more likely to fall in this category, and this demographic are typically more used to searching for information on the internet.
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