Tackling fuel poverty in Scotland: a strategic approach

The fuel poverty strategy sets out policies and proposals for national government, local authorities and third sector partners to help meet the targets set out in the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019.

Chapter 5 - Making it Easier to Use Energy Effectively

Every home will use energy differently depending on their personal circumstances, preferences, and experience, as well as the type of heating system that they use. Furthermore, for households in fuel poverty, concerns about the affordability of energy will affect how they use energy. The way that energy is used not only impacts energy bills but can also have significant consequences for health, wellbeing and comfort.

It is important that we support people to change their behaviours so they can make optimal use of their energy. However, we must also be mindful that those in fuel poverty often face limited choices about how they use energy. Some households require more energy due to household circumstances and, due to affordability, fuel poor households are often not able to access the level of energy that they need. They can therefore face difficult choices about how they use energy in their home,leading them to develop coping strategies to keep warm.

Our Lived Experience Research provided insight into the impact of being unable to access enough energy to meet a household's reasonable needs. We also carried out a Rapid Evidence Review to better understand how those with protected characteristics in Scotland use their heating systems. While available evidence was limited, it highlighted that heating behaviours are often complex and influenced by a range of factors such as income and tenure, as well as individual factors such as habit and energy literacy. It also highlighted a lack of longitudinal research to understand how peoples' heating behaviours change and adapt over time and circumstance.

Perceptions of warmth

Graphic comparing householders perceptions of the warmth and heating affordability of their homes with measured fuel poverty rates in 2019

Fuel poor households and extreme fuel poor households are more likely to have difficulties staying warm in winter and to report affordability problems.

23% of all fuel poor and 28% of extreme fuel poor households say that their heating keeps them warm enough in winter 'only sometimes' or 'never' compared to 15% of all other households. 9% of all fuel poor and 10% of extreme fuel poor households report that they cannot afford to heat their home.

This variation between levels of fuel poverty and perceptions of warmth and affordability was also seen in our Lived Experience Research. Although all the households involved were categorised as fuel poor or extreme fuel poor, some reported no issues with warmth in the home while around half struggled to keep most or any of their rooms as warm as they would have liked. Those with chronic health conditions often had greater sensitivity to cold and families with children under 5 were sensitive to inadequate heating because of the need to ensure children were comfortable at specific times. Overall, what households considered to be a comfortable level of warmth was found to be subjective, with different participants finding different temperatures to be comfortable – even within the same household.

Experiences of warmth were also found to be occasionally gendered. This is mirrored in research by Citizens Advice Scotland[16] which notes the gendered experiences of warmth between men and women. Experiences of warmth in our Lived Experience Research also varied by preference for employing 'coping' strategies – i. e. some participants preferred wearing warmer clothing in the home and therefore found a cooler temperature to be comfortable. Furthermore, the Evidence Review highlighted that cultural and social factors were considered as influencing decisions to heat the home to a particular temperature or adopt coping strategies, especially for some older households who were simultaneously found to value warmth but living frugally and putting on a jumper rather than turning up the heat was perceived as virtuous.

In short, perceptions of comfort and warmth are complex and situated within the social and cultural experiences of individuals and households. We therefore must seek to improve our understanding of how different households in fuel poverty use energy in the home.

How do those in fuel poverty use energy in the home?

Through our research we have tried to understand more about the factors which influence how energy is used in the home, recognising that those in fuel poverty will have a range of experiences. Improving our understanding will further help to ensure that the advice and support we provide is targeted effectively in supporting fuel poor households.

Unfortunately, research that explores the interaction between heating system use and protected characteristics in Scotland is limited. Improving data collection on household lifestyles, energy use, and conservation behaviours would help us to better understand the behaviours of those with protected characteristics so that we can empower people to make the best use of interventions. There is also little longitudinal research on heating behaviours and so our understanding of how moving into or out of fuel poverty impacts heating behaviours is limited.

Working with the Scottish Fuel Poverty Advisory Panel, we will seek to fill these gaps in the evidence by carrying out further research into how people in fuel poverty with different protected characteristics use energy in the home.

SG Action – Working with the Scottish Fuel Poverty Advisory Panel, we will explore opportunities to carry out further research to understand how people in fuel poverty with different protected characteristics use energy in the home to ensure our approach promotes equality of outcomes

How do fuel poor households cope when they can't afford the energy they need?

Households in fuel poverty often have to make difficult decisions about how to meet their energy needs. This can include prioritising energy bills over other household bills or essentials, using less energy than required, and/or using coping strategies to stay warm in a cold home.

Prioritising energy bills

Research carried out by Citizens Advice Scotland[17] found that, compared to other demographics, older households were less likely to self-report struggling with fuel poverty. However, many of the these older households who reported they were "managing financially" went on to explain that they were doing so by cutting out other essential expenditure on things like travel and food. This implies that different perceptions of what constitutes "managing" may contribute to low self-reporting in these households

In our Lived Experience Research, households struggling to pay bills often prioritised energy bills over other expenses such as rent or council tax. Due to the importance of energy to health and wellbeing, these type of sacrifices were seen as unavoidable. In some instances, households struggling to pay bills also had to access credit or borrow money from friends or family to meet them or to reduce expenditure on other household essentials, such as food.

Self-rationing and self-disconnection

On the other hand, those aged 65 and over and on a low pension were often responding to affordability issues by limiting their heating. This practice of limiting energy use to less than a household requires is often referred to as self-rationing. When a household stops using energy entirely due to affordability, it is called self-disconnection.

When households self-ration or self-disconnect, the impacts for the household can be significant. It can mean not being able to have a warm shower, wash clothes, cook a hot meal, watch television or access online services. It can therefore seriously affect both mental and physical health.

The Fuel Bank Foundation provides same-day support to prepayment meter users who are at risk of self-disconnection. Households receiving support sometimes report how the way that they use energy in the home is shaped by their expectation that they will self-disconnect at some point.

"I will always know that my meter will disconnect because I need to top it up with around £30 per week in the winter. If I only have £20 I know for certain that for a couple of days I'll have to do without so I work out when living without heat and gas would work best for me: I make sure I time when I can have a shower so I don't feel bad going to work knowing that I'm not clean. I make sure that I cook the food in the fridge that would go off and so I can have it cold on a sandwich. If I know the grandbairns are coming at the weekend I'll make sure that I've had my time without heat before they come so they don't need to suffer. I'd be really embarrassed if they said they were cold and I'd worry that they wouldn't want to see me. "

Self-disconnection can also make it more difficult to maintain social connections. Our Evidence Review showed that this was a specific concern for young adults who saw electricity bills as a priority due to the risk of being unable to charge mobile phones and access the internet.

Research carried out by Citizens Advice Scotland highlighted the increased risks of self-disconnection for disabled people and the need to consider the suitability of prepayment meters as a result.

Coping strategies to stay warm

Households that we spoke to told us about the strategies that they use to stay warm when they are unable to heat their homes to the temperature that they require. The most common strategies, such as wearing more layers of clothes, using blankets and hot water bottles, were seen as common sense and did not appear to cause a great deal of concern. Further measures participants took to stay warm included:

  • taping card over vents to keep out draughts
  • lining windows and doors with towels to keep out draughts
  • lining furniture with extra layers to provide additional warmth
  • using a sleeping bag during the day
  • wearing outdoor coats indoors
  • keeping the family in one room and heating just that room
  • spending evenings in warmer rooms upstairs or going to bed early
  • parents co-sleeping with children.

Many of these coping strategies were regarded as normal and they usually formed part of routines that participants had become used to.

"I just put the sleeping bag here and then I can just sit inside it which is nice and toasty when you do that, so you don't need heating when you do that. "

Stuart, 35+ no children, Private renter, Other urban/non-remote rural, EFP and EHR

The coping strategies used and the tendency to downplay the impact of having to use them mirrored findings referenced in the Evidence Review, which suggested this may be down to a sense of shame or embarrassment. In contrast to the findings in the Evidence Review, no participants explicitly said they enjoyed having to take some of these measures.

Those who described living in particularly cold homes felt that these coping strategies were not always enough for them to reach an adequate level of warmth.

"Regardless of how many layers I wear [I'm not comfortable], I've got thermal tights on under these… but where the base of your back is… the cold comes up and hits me right there, so I get sciatica… my back can sometimes swell right up, and that's where the cold is hitting it… it gets to the point where you can't walk or you can't sit or I can't get out the chair. It makes me feel horrendous. "

Catherine, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

Targeted support for those who need greater warmth

The experiences of the fuel poor households that we spoke to highlight the limited flexibility some households have when it comes to when they use their energy. In some instances, households may require access to affordable warmth 24/7, emphasising the importance of achieving high energy efficiency standards for households in fuel poverty and ensuring that those most exposed to the health risks of living in a cold home are prioritised for support. The need for longer heating hours may also make it more difficult for certain households to benefit from new technologies, such as flexible tariffs which can help households use energy when it is cheaper.

The current Winter Fuel Payment and Cold Weather Payment as well as our Child Winter Heating Assistance provide targeted financial support to households who are likely to have a greater need for heat due to the need for either longer heating hours or higher temperatures.

Through WHS, we also target funding for energy efficiency improvements at households who are most exposed to the health risks of staying in a cold home – due to age, disability or caring responsibilities. By achieving higher EPC Standards through WHS and ABS, we also hope to help make energy more affordable for households who require greater levels of warmth.

We will continue to ensure that we take account of the needs of those who are likely to have a greater need for heat as we develop policy to eradicate fuel poverty.

Targeted support for those unable to afford the energy that they need

As highlighted above, the pressure of energy bills can lead to households prioritising them over other household bills or essentials. As a result, households may require advice and support to manage debts or meet essential needs.

We will continue to strengthen partnerships so that more households are made aware of the help that is available, both from HES and also from the wide range of support organisations across Scotland.

However, for some fuel poor households prioritising their energy bills is not possible or not enough. These households limit their energy use or self-disconnect rather than use what they require. Due to the need to pay for energy in advance, those who use prepayment meters or rely on deliveries of unregulated fuels, such as oil or coal, are most at risk of self-disconnection.

We therefore welcomed the announcement by Ofgem in December 2020 of the requirement for suppliers to offer emergency credit to customers struggling to top up their prepayment meter, many of whom are likely to be in fuel poverty. Suppliers also have to offer extra prepayment credit for households in vulnerable circumstances to provide more breathing space while working out alternative arrangements to pay.

Around half of the households that we spoke to as part of our Lived Experience Research used coping strategies to try to stay warm due to being unable to heat their home to an adequate temperature. However, as noted above, households tended to view these actions as normal and downplay any negative impacts of having to take them.

Tackling barriers to using energy efficiently in the home

The varying experiences of fuel poor households with differing heating systems highlights how important it is that advice and support is available across a range of issues in relation to home energy use and that it is tailored to the household's needs. It also suggests that improvements in heating system design which make it easier for households to operate them could help households heat their homes more efficiently.

As part of the support that they provide, HES can provide specialist advice that is tailored to the needs of the household on how to operate heating systems effectively.

As we ramp up our activity to meet our climate objectives, we also need to improve our understanding of how well new technologies can meet the needs of those in fuel poverty. For example, we know that Air Source Heat Pumps operate less efficiently when used intermittently and it will therefore be important that where these are installed the household does need to self-disconnect. The Heat as a Service model may be one way of preventing this and we will consider the potential to use this model to support fuel poor households.


Email: FuelPovertyStrategy@gov.scot

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