This month saw the start of a New Year, and with it the start of the cold weather.
Up until the beginning of January the weather was particularly mild, but according to reports Britain is on course for its coldest winter yet, with forecasters warning of a big freeze that will last until spring!
Very few welcome such forecasts, but for many it’s about more than just a dislike of the cold weather.
One in four households in Wales are living in fuel poverty. That’s over 291,000 households, equivalent to 23% of households in Wales, that cannot afford to keep warm, or who are living in crippling debt to their energy supplier. Rising energy prices, poor energy efficiency, stagnant wages, and benefit changes are leaving many having to make the difficult choice between eating and heating their home.
Fuel poverty is a catalyst for many economic, social and health problems, and can even cause death. 3,400 excess winter deaths occurred in the 2017/18 winter, a figure that doubled since the previous year. The World Health Organisations estimates that 30% of winter deaths are caused by cold housing.
A household in Wales is in fuel poverty if they spend 10% or more of their income on energy costs, including Housing Benefit, Income Support or Mortgage Interest or council tax benefits on energy costs. A household is in severe fuel poverty if they have to spend 20% or more of their income on energy costs.
People who struggle to heat their homes warm usually have low incomes and are often the most vulnerable people in our communities.
It is seriously wrong that many of the most vulnerable members of our society, particularly older people, the disabled and the chronically ill, are put at risk every winter.
As the Assembly Member for what is demographically the oldest constituency in Wales, I find the issue of increasing numbers of elderly people falling into fuel poverty particularly worrying.
The connection between fuel poverty and health is very real, with the annual cost to the Welsh NHS of treating people made ill by living in a cold damp home at approximately £67 million.
Health impacts caused by cold homes predominantly relate to cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Low temperatures also diminish resistance to infection and encourage damp and mould growth in the home. Cold indoor conditions have also been linked to poor mental health resulting from anxiety and stress. Cold homes can also exacerbate social isolation and reduce educational attainment.
The Welsh Government published its Fuel Poverty Strategy in 2010 with the aim of eradicating fuel poverty by 2018. With 23% of people still living in fuel poverty in Wales, it is unlikely that this target is going to be met. National Energy Action (NEA) Cymru is therefore calling for a revised strategy in order to adequately address the issue and I fully support their calls.
Last year the UK Government changed the law to put a cap on energy prices, protecting 11 million people in England, Wales and Scotland from higher bills. Prior to this some consumers were paying up to £300 more than they needed to – thankfully the cap is helping to bring this overcharging under control.
No one in Wales in this day and age should be living in a cold home. With the cost of living increasing and energy prices rising, more needs to be done to help the most vulnerable in society. It is therefore vital that Governments, Local Authorities, Housing Associations, energy suppliers, regulators, network companies, Health Boards, and third sector organisations work collectively to ensure everyone can enjoy the comfort of a safe and warm home.
For advice on keeping safe and warm in your home, visit www.nea.org.uk/advice