Blog by Edel Quinn, Age NI Strategic Policy Adviser
Fuel poverty has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rising energy prices, leaky, energy inefficient housing and low incomes have resulted in Northern Ireland having the highest rates of fuel poverty in the UK and one of the highest rates in Northern Europe.(1)
The upward pressure on wholesale electricity and oil costs and the impact of Brexit on oil prices due to the weakened pound has further disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland as 68% of households are reliant on home heating oil, a non-regulated fuel. More than ever, therefore, we need a viable, long-term, sustainable solution to tackle fuel poverty.
Although all households in NI have felt the impact of increasing energy prices, it is pensioners who have borne the brunt of fuel poverty. And almost half of all households – that is an estimated 138,000 older households across NI - live on such low incomes in wasteful, hard to heat homes that they are unable to keep warm in their homes at a reasonable cost. Older people are more likely to occupy dwellings that fail to meet acceptable standards,(2) and two thirds of people aged 75 and over are living in fuel poverty.(3)
In addition, there were 870 ‘excess winter deaths’ in Northern Ireland during 2014/15, and the vast majority of these deaths occurred in people aged 75 and over.(4) This was the highest figure since 2009/10. Respiratory Disease accounted for 330 of the excess winter deaths in 2014/15, a figure more than double that of the previous year.(5) While flu incidences may have contributed to these high numbers, there is no doubt that some of the excess winter deaths are attributable to the cold and could have been prevented if those people had lived in warm homes. Research shows conclusively that when the temperatures dip below 6 degrees,(6) the incidence of respiratory and circulatory illnesses starts rising, and most of those deaths are attributable to those illnesses.
Health implications of fuel poverty are also more serious for older people who are at greater risk of respiratory disease, heart attack, stroke and accidental hypothermia.(7) A cold home can be a lonely and depressing place to live and evidence has proven links to exacerbating mental health concerns and social isolation. Many older people are not as mobile as other age groups and they spend proportionately more time in the house which means they generally need more electric and heating, with some people having to make stark choices between heating their home and buying the food they need.
Nearly one in four (23%) older people tell us that they are struggling to afford essential items such as food, gas and electricity and 50% tell us that, while they can afford these essentials they have no money left for extras.(8)
The Government has a range of policies in place across Northern Ireland that are designed to address fuel poverty, but they do not go far enough, leaving many older people cold, miserable, isolated and vulnerable.
Age NI believes that everyone should be able to live in a home which is warm enough to provide a healthy living environment. Older people make up a large proportion of the fuel poor and as such Age NI calls on government to address the three causes of fuel poverty.
Age NI is a member of the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition (9) and supports the Manifesto for Warmth.
We call on government to:
- provide the most vulnerable, including older people, with a financial discount from their energy bill
- make energy efficiency an infrastructure priority to resource a well targeted energy efficiency programme, based on a Whole House Solution
- ensure that current and future fuel poverty schemes are effectively targeted at those who need the most support to reduce their heating costs, and any emerging scheme must ensure that the energy justice principles of the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP) are embedded as a key principle
- establish a new fuel poverty strategy, ensuring that all key departments, organisations and individuals are fully engaged in tackling fuel poverty
- save lives by implementing the NICE NG6 guidelines on tackling excess winter deaths
- regulate the oil industry both in price and protection of vulnerable consumers, ensuring that consumers have the same safeguards that natural gas and electricity consumers currently have
Older people make up a large proportion of the fuel poor and the impact on them is more severe. Fuel poverty has adversely affected our population, and older people especially, for far too long. We want to see a permanent solution put in place, working in partnership with older people and others directly impacted by fuel poverty, to tackle energy inefficient homes, energy prices and low incomes.
If you or an older person you know is struggling to keep warm or to pay the bills, please contact Age NI’s Advice and Advocacy Service on 0808 808 7575.
Article by Edel Quinn
Age NI Strategic Policy Adviser
Tel: 028 9024 5729
- Northern Ireland House Conditions Survey 2011
- Agenda for Later Life Age NI 2015 http://www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB-NI/policy/Age_NI_Agenda_for_Later_Life_2015.pdf?dtrk=true
- Northern Ireland House Conditions Survey 2011, Fig. 6.4, p. 69
- Excess Winter Mortality, 2014/15, NISRA. http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp32.htm
- Excess Winter Mortality, 2014/15, NISRA.
- Cold Weather Plan For England , Making the Case: Why long-term strategic planning for cold weather is essential to health and wellbeing, Public Health England https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/561090/CWP_making_the_case.pdf
- Agenda for later life. Age NI (2015)
- Agenda for later life. Age NI (2015)