Fuel Poverty, Mental Health and Housing Improvements

Thursday 8 December 2016

Fuel poverty has been rising in Scotland over the past decade, representing both a political priority and a policy problem. Fuel poverty has been of concern for many years because of its effects upon physical health, and alarming consequences in terms of excess winter deaths due to (mainly older) people living in cold homes.

Under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 the Scottish Government has had a statutory duty to eradicate fuel poverty ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ by November 2016. The main policy instrument available to, and used by, the Scottish Government to tackle fuel poverty has been to install energy efficiency and warmth interventions in people’s homes, through a variety of schemes. However, in June this year, the Scottish Government confirmed that it would not meet its fuel poverty target. Indeed, the latest figures indicated that 35% of Scottish households remain in fuel poverty.  

In a newly published academic article from GoWell, we broaden the debate about fuel poverty by looking at its associated mental health impacts, and go on to examine whether warmth improvements to people’s homes impact upon their experience of fuel poverty. 

Across the GoWell surveys from 2006, 2008 and 2011, respondents report an increasing frequency overall of having difficulty paying for domestic fuel. And between each pair of survey waves, around a fifth of respondents report more difficulty paying for fuel than they did before (with slightly fewer people reporting a reduction). Moreover, we found that those people who in 2011 (after the economic downturn and recession) reported an increased difficulty paying for fuel compared to before the recession  also experienced a substantial decline in their mental health (recorded using a standard health scale in the survey).

Thus, we confirmed the existence of a significant association over time between worsening fuel poverty and worsening mental health for a substantial proportion of people living in deprived areas.

We went on to look at what differences two types of housing improvement works made to this situation, namely fabric works to the exteriors of buildings (including insulation, external cladding, and new roofs) and central heating works (including new or replacement boilers, hot water tanks, and radiators).

We found no evidence in our results that either fabric works or central heating works impacted upon the occupants’ experience of fuel payment difficulties, with one exception – in our earliest cohort the provision of central heating works was associated with a subsequent increased reporting of fuel payment difficulties. Neither of the improvement works reduced the reporting of fuel payment difficulties over time.

The article discusses a number of reasons why this lack of impact from housing improvements might exist, including problems of rising fuel prices and stagnant incomes in times of austerity, among others. It is widely acknowledged, for example, that low income households have faced particular financial difficulties since the financial recession. This is a result of a range of factors including welfare reform, inflation, low or no wage increases. During the period of this research, between 2006 and 2011, electricity costs increased by 102% and gas by 67%.

But it may also be the case that occupants are not aware of how to use their new or revamped heating systems to best effect, even sometimes over-using their heating after works are completed. GHA has stressed, however, that significant improvements have been made to the energy ratings of social rented housing and that a range of support and advice is available to help tenants to maximise the energy efficiency of their homes and to secure the best energy deals.

The article supports calls made by others, particularly the Scottish Government’s Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group that the impacts of housing improvements upon people’s experience of fuel poverty be assessed (and not just hypothetically calculated) and that occupant behaviour or how people are using heating and energy in their homes be considered as a fourth driver of fuel poverty, alongside fuel prices, incomes and the energy performance of dwellings. 

The research is available in this article in the International Journal of Housing Policy: Housing improvements, fuel payment difficulties and mental health in deprived communities. 

 You will need an Athens password (available to NHS staff and University staff and students) or access to libraries which subscribe to the journal to access the article.