European insights on tackling fuel poverty

Stuart Hay, Senior Consultant

Stuart Hay, Senior Consultant

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).

leep warmburghEC-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.

leep warmburghThe 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.

- Stuart

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

How far can a foodbox go?

Our Affordable Living Advisor, Chris Clyne, recently asked himself that question. He decided to try living off nothing but the contents of an emergency foodbox to try and answer this, and gain valuable insights along the way.


Chris’ foodbox

A foodbox is an emergency food package containing a minimum of three days’ supply of nutritious and non-perishable food which is given to someone in crisis from organisations such as foodbanks eg Midlothian Foodbank (such as those run by the Trussell Trust) and community groups and churches eg Edinburgh City Mission.

To better understand why Chris decided to set himself this personal challenge and to find out how he got on, we caught up with him to ask him some questions.

Hi Chris! What do you do?

Changeworks Advisor Chris Clyne

Chris Clyne, Changeworks’ Affordable Living Advisor

I’m an Affordable Living Advisor at Changeworks. I give energy advice to residents in Midlothian who may be struggling with the cost of keeping their home warm or are worried about their gas or electricity bills. I also give advice on food waste and waste prevention, how to make food stretch further and meal planning. I deliver face to face workshops to help people manage their gas and electricity costs in addition to cutting their food waste, using our Kitchen Canny kit.

I try to help people manage their household budget. I aim to be a first resort, rather than a last resort.

Who do you work with?

I am currently working on the Midlothian Area Resource Co-ordination for Hardship (MARCH) project, a partnership between Midlothian Council, Midlothian Financial Inclusion Network (MFIN) and Changeworks.

The project objectives are to help people:

  • Experiencing hardship and those affected by Welfare Reform to have improved access to welfare advice through increased local and targeted provision
  • Be better able to manage their money, minimise their fuel costs and avoid food waste
  • Access timely and effective support due to improved co-ordination and awareness of sources of hardship support services.

What’s in a foodbox?

According to The Trussell Trust, a typical foodbox contains enough nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food, such as dried and tinned foods, to last an individual or family a minimum of three days.

All foods are donated by schools, churches, businesses and individuals, or through supermarket collections. The donations are then given to foodbanks, who distribute them to people in need.

What is a foodbank?

Foodbanks, such as the Trussell Trust, are usually run in partnership with churches and community groups and provide a minimum of three days emergency food and support to people experiencing crisis in the UK. Redundancy, illness, benefit delay, domestic violence, debt, family breakdown and paying for the additional costs of heating during winter are just some of the reasons why people go hungry.

In addition to foodbanks, there are also social and community cafes, some run by parish churches, where the food is free of charge or for a donation.

Where did your foodbox come from?

I actually went to a supermarket and bought the contents myself, rather than from a foodbank. I based contents on a typical food box handed out by a foodbank. The foodboxes at foodbanks are specifically designated for those in need. The cost of the contents came to £20.18.

Why did you decide to try this out yourself?

It came up in conversation in a course I was doing, while working at social cafes. I saw a food parcel and wondered if I could take it to the extreme by making the minimum three days stretch to two weeks.

Also, through the MARCH project I sometimes meet people who receive the foodboxes and thought I could help them better if I understood more what it was like to live off the contents and share my experiences.

What did you think meals would be like?

Spicy tomato pasta with hotdogs

Spicy tomato pasta with hotdogs

I thought they might be repetitive, boring and bland. In some cases that was true due to the limited ingredients. I ate a lot of pepperoni pasta, which became quite repetitive. So I wanted to see if I could come up with recipe suggestions using the contents of the box to make meals more interesting, or at least give people ideas on how to use the contents, even if they vary a bit.

Did you think you would feel hungry?

I thought I would be fine. In the first week I didn’t go to bed hungry at all. However, into the second week I felt hunger pangs and more fatigued than normal. I realised this might be because I usually eat larger portion sizes and also eat between meals.

So were your portion sizes much different from normal?

Breakfast was slightly smaller than usual but lunch was about same size. Evening meals were generally lower in nutritional content. If I was unemployed, I would have been more likely to eat more as I would not have been distracted by work.

How easy was it to live off the contents?

I found it easy to start off with, but towards the end it became more difficult because I started feeling hungry more often.

Did it go as you expected?

Salmon fishcakes

Salmon fishcakes

On the whole it went better than expected. I managed to create  recipes with the contents, for example fish cakes, and salmon with tomatoes in pasta. It forced me to make dishes I would never normally eat, which was actually a good thing.

I thought I could manage for 14 days but in the end I managed 10 days. There was a small amount of food left over, but it had become quite difficult to turn it into a meal without adding additional ingredients from elsewhere.

Did you use any other food stuffs from your cupboards?

Only salt and pepper.

What kitchen and cooking equipment did you use?

I used only one gas ring, a microwave and a kettle to save on electricity. I also used a pot, a pan, bowl and plates. The rest was just the usually crockery and utensils.

How did you feel during this experience?

Rice pudding and peaches

Rice pudding and tinned peaches

The food was not as nutritious as I would normally eat. There were no fresh fruit and vegetables.

I started feeling hungrier into the second week which started to affect my judgement. I also started to get out of bed later. In general I didn’t feel as confident and had difficulty holding conversations with people – partly due to difficulty concentrating, fatigue and tiredness. I can see how easy it could be to fall into a kind of rut.

How did it affect you physically?

It affected me less physically, with only a very slight weight loss noted.

Were your expectations too high?

As the food parcel was expected to last a minimum of three days, I think I did quite well to make it last 10 days. However, by then I think it was already starting to affect my health. If I had no other options, then I would have tried to stretch it to 14 days, but this would have been at a clear cost to my health and wellbeing.

What did you take from this experience?

It certainly gave me an interesting insight into the difficulties people face when food is in short supply. I think that if I was unemployed and eating from a food parcel or even on this kind of diet for a prolonged period, I would have ended up in a rut that would be difficult to get out of. I can see how it could be easier to make mistakes, how my morale and self-esteem could be affected.

I think this experience will help me relate better with people who are undergoing extreme financial hardship. It’s given me more insight into how I could help them in my day to day job.

From a personal point of view, as a result I now enjoy cooking more and I’m more likely to cook from scratch for myself more often. I also eat more regularly throughout the day.

What advice would you give to anyone who receives a foodbox?

It is possible to make the box last longer, maybe six days and have better meals. However, much really depends on the individual, their different appetite and energy levels. I would also suggest trying to have four small meals a day to keep up energy levels rather than trying to stretch it out too much. Store some foods in the freezer or keep in sealed tubs, and plan meals carefully.

Would you change anything about what you did?

Not really. I might try to come up with different recipes.

Thanks for your time Chris! We hope your experience helps you pass on useful insights to anyone who needs them.

You can check out some of Chris’ foodbox recipes here.