Changeworks' Senior Consultant Stuart Hay presented our latest research findings at the 'Energy Check for Low Income Households' seminar in Berlin recently. Here, Stuart shares research insights and learnings for both the UK and Europe.

First the good news: Scotland and the UK are European leaders on tackling fuel poverty. Our policy framework is both sophisticated and comprehensive. The bad news is that this reflects the fact that the problem is more acute and deep rooted in the UK. What's more, we are only slightly further down the road in terms of developing a practical response to address the issue, but face clear challenges in funding in-depth support, working with energy companies and integrating advice projects and employability. This is one of the key insights Changeworks gained from participating in EU funded advice project Energy Check for Low Income Households (EC-LINC).

EC-LINC allowed Changeworks to compare its work and operating environment with European partners in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Hungary.  Funding for the project came from the Intelligent Energy Europe programme.  Early in the project it became apparent that things can be very different on the continent.  In most of the partner countries there is no established definition of fuel poverty. Often the traditional UK definition [1], when a household is required to use 10% or more of its income on energy bills, is used as a proxy although is not officially recognised.  In the UK we measure the number of people in fuel debt and disconnections – something they don’t measure in other EU countries. This shows the scale of the problem we face in the UK. It is clear the work by campaigners to define and raise national awareness of the issue and set targets in the UK is useful in focusing policy and actions.

EC-LINC looked at replicating the German “Stromspar-Check”, a model which trains long-term unemployed people to become energy advisors and provide energy audits to low income households.  This is already being delivered to 100 local authorities (municipalities) across Germany. Here in the UK the changing landscape of benefits legislation and employability meant an employability initiative was impractical to set up at the start of the project. Instead, Changeworks focused on sharing the lessons from a wide range of ongoing existing fuel poverty advisory services and projects. At the same time, a parallel EU project ACHIEVE (Action in low-income households to improve energy efficiency through visits and energy diagnosis), involving Severn Wye Energy Agency (SWEA) in Wiltshire, provided us with a reference point on how fuel poverty and employability initiatives could be combined in the UK. ACHIEVE confirmed that starting the process from scratch is very challenging, both in terms of recruitment and retaining advisors. Similar issues were experienced by EC-LINC country partners, with most turning to existing professional advisors and social enterprises to deliver the energy checks. Germany and particularly Belgium had more success, but this involved building their projects around established training and social enterprise initiatives.  It is clear that synergies between fuel poverty advice and employability seem logical in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice.

A major challenge for any energy advisor, and especially one re-entering the job market, is having the skill set, experience and confidence to deal with the multiple issues faced by low income households. These include debt, health issues, cultural barriers and, in some cases, exploitation by landlords and energy companies.  In our experience, the role of an energy advisor is challenging, demanding, focused on outcomes for the customer but also fulfilling. Changeworks has also discovered that people can experience and try out a similar ‘work experience’ through our volunteering programmes, such as Heat Heroes – an approach yet to be taken by partners.

The project findings also confirmed that working with other local advice providers is critical, eg Citizens Advice Bureaux, local authorities and housing associations.  In the UK, fuel billing, tariff changes and assessing benefit eligibility were at least, if not more important than, energy advice to reduce energy usage.  Whilst some householders could see immediate benefits from advice on heating systems, closing windows and draught proofing etc, in other cases the opportunities for savings were limited because households were smaller with already fairly minimal energy use.  In partner countries where the focus was on ‘softer’ behaviour change interventions and electricity use, eg energy efficient light bulbs, it was challenging to deliver large energy bill or carbon savings for householders.  Evidence from Belgium and the UK suggests it is important to promote insulation improvements as part of the home visits and tap into national programmes for funding.

Home visits can only have limited impact for householders when there are larger, society-wide issues around poverty that need tackling. For example, if energy suppliers were better at providing cheap and transparent tariffs to vulnerable customers then energy advisors could spend more of their time supporting customers to take up sustainable, energy efficiency behaviours. These wider problems mean that for organisations like Changeworks we’re joining up advice to help tackle common issues such as household budgeting, food waste prevention and more work with benefits advisors.  Where issues are less acute, volunteers can work with clients to help widen the reach and impact of the service.

Most EC-LINC countries had a framework of national support and in this respect Scotland compares well. EC-LINC partners were impressed with the Home Energy Scotland advice centres and the level and quality of advice that could be delivered cost effectively and efficiently over the phone by well-trained advisors.  In South East Scotland this approach provides many referrals to in-depth fuel poverty advice from local projects funded through local authorities and charitable organisations, such as Changeworks.  However, it was clear that these local advice projects operate in a more challenging funding environment than in other countries, due to pressures on local authority budgets.  What this means is a more tailored, innovative and flexible approach, with Changeworks co-ordinating work across 10 separately funded services targeting different groups, often as part of time limited initiatives.  In Belgium, Germany and Austria local government appeared to have more resources and scope to support these initiatives over the longer-term.  In some cases, fuel subsidies and specific benefits, such as winter fuel payments, are paid by local authorities in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Hungary and provided an extra incentive to get people out of fuel poverty.  In Belgium for example, there is a clear path for managing struggling customers with incentives to refer and fund advice services starting with a household energy check – this is not offered to customers in the UK.  National insulation programmes equivalent to Carbon Energy Reduction Target (CERT) and Energy Company Obligation (ECO) also seemed more stable, making projects easier to develop and manage programmes.

In a nutshell, clear learnings and insights emerged from the EC-LINC project, relevant to both the UK and other countries. These include:

1. Shared and understood definitions of fuel poverty at a national level help shape policies and action, especially as fuel poverty issues span energy, housing and income issues.

2. Fuel poverty advice needs skilled and experienced advisors, therefore great care is needed in marrying this type of service with employability initiatives.  This can work, but well established programmes are needed to sustain and support long-term unemployed people into this type of work.

3. Home visits need to be carefully targeted and able to deal with a wide variety of issues experienced by low income households – the emphasis might not be energy saving.  This is especially the case in the UK, where there are often complicated fuel debt, billing or benefits issues to deal with.

4. Home visits are best supported at a local level and this is easier to organise where local or regional government has incentives and the necessary resources to sustain long term programmes.  The UK approach is more innovative, but fragmented due to a dependence on a wide variety of often short-term funding sources.  Energy companies can also be regulated in ways that make them more willing to engage and support local advice services.

5. Expect increasing action at a European level as rising fuel prices make fuel poverty a common issue with a high priority.

It is difficult to say whether it is reassuring or depressing to know that other countries share the same challenges and frustrations that are found in Scotland.  The EC-LINC project found no silver bullets or quick fixes.  It did, however, show that Scotland has a lot to build on.  To achieve more means tackling some big issues, including energy company regulation and bolstering the role of local authorities in supporting the fuel poor and those most in need. Meanwhile, European partners can continue to learn from a more established policy framework and innovations in energy advice delivery in Scotland.


You can read more about Changeworks’ fuel poverty services in the EC-LINC Stakeholder Report published February 2014.

[1] The English definition is now different