Redbrick conducted a survey and spoke to students, a local MP, and Welfare and Community Officer Izzy Bygrave to learn more about the issue of fuel poverty in the areas surrounding the University
Redbrick News has found that a number of University of Birmingham students living in Selly Oak and Harborne could be experiencing fuel poverty. A number of factors, such as the increasing cost of heating bills and poorly insulated housing, could lead UoB students to fall under the category of being ‘fuel poor.’
Those who are regarded as being fuel poor cannot afford to keep their homes adequately heated. Fuel poverty occurs when fuel costs are above the average median and, if the occupants were to heat their homes to the recommended temperature (21°C), the cost of doing so would bring them below the official poverty line.
One in ten families in the UK experience fuel poverty, but students are often left out of these statistics. A report published in September 2018 by Elsevier argues that official definitions of fuel poverty fail to incorporate students. If fuel poverty is considered using a ‘low income, high costs’ definition – which states that fuel costs should be no higher than 10% of household income – the authors suggest that many students will be considered fuel poor. What’s more, students don’t fit the criteria for government fuel poverty assistance, so they cannot access benefits to help heat their homes.
The West Midlands is facing a fuel poverty crisis, according to the Oil Firing Technical Association, with 14% of homes in the region being classed as fuel poor. In both Selly Oak and Harborne, sub-regional data from the government finds that 20.3% of houses are considered to be in fuel poverty. Selly Oak, in particular, has a high student population, with nearly half of the population being aged 18-24 – which suggests that a number of UoB students could be part of these fuel poverty figures.
Redbrick conducted a survey with 134 participants and found that 85.5% of respondents living in Selly Oak or Harborne wish that their homes are warmer in winter. 34.3% described their homes as ‘cool’ and 31.3% said that their homes are ‘very cool’. Over two thirds (64.2%) admitted to wearing outdoor wear – such as coats, scarves, and gloves – indoors during the winter months to keep warm.
There are several consequences of living in a cold home, such as the development of mould and slug infestations, with 62.7% of people agreeing that they experienced these problems. Cold homes can also lead to physical and mental health issues. A 2011 report by Friends of the Earth found that those facing difficult paying bills were four times as likely to experience anxiety and depression. One person commented on Redbrick’s survey saying: ‘Last year I actually became ill and my asthma worsened as a result of damp and poor heating.’ Another person also experienced issues with asthma over the winter months, suggesting that they were in a ‘constant battle’ attempting to regulate the heating in their room so that their health issues improved.
More than a third of those surveyed (37.3%) said that they struggle to pay their heating bills and 82.8% admitted to actively avoiding heating their homes to reduce costs. Around five people said that they sacrifice buying food, as well as other essential living costs, in order to keep up with their heating bills.
These results could’ve been influenced by unusually cold temperatures last winter, with the ‘Beast from the East’ plummeting temperatures to below zero, but this data has previously been replicated by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2017. From a pool of 2509 responses, 49% said that their house is uncomfortably cold in winter and 42% struggled at least from time to time to pay their energy bills. Although these results are slightly higher than those found by Redbrick, the sample was much larger and takes into account student housing nationwide.
But why are students facing fuel poverty? The authors of the Elsevier report suggest that most students live in pre-1991 housing, which is not energy efficient. Houses built before the 1990s often have solid walls, meaning that there is no cavity to insert insulation. With Selly Oak and Harborne consisting of many houses that predate the 1990s, it’s likely that poorly insulated housing partly contributes to fuel poverty in the area. Poorly insulated houses require more energy to heat to an adequate temperature, which in turn increases costs and could put students below the poverty line.
Raising energy prices across the UK could also have contributed to these figures. Earlier this year, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy forecasted that fuel poverty across the UK could worsen as a result of increasing energy prices. All six of the UK’s major energy suppliers have raised their prices, which is likely to widen the ‘fuel poverty gap’ between households’ energy bills and what the tenants can afford to pay. Energy UK, the trade association for the energy sector, told Redbrick that the increase in prices is as a result of the wholesale cost of fuel, which has risen by 30% in the last year.
One major reason why students are experiencing fuel poverty is because most students live in the private rented sector on short-term contracts. 18% of the population rent privately, but this figure is much higher for students. These short tenancies reduce student’s bargaining power with landlords to make improvements regarding energy efficiency. In Redbrick’s survey, 81.7% of respondents claimed that, when they have asked for an energy efficiency rating from their landlord, they have not been provided with one. What’s more, over three-quarters of respondents (84.6%) said that their landlord did not follow through with their request for new boilers, radiators, or heating equipment to be updated in their property.
The government recently launched a consultation into energy efficiency in the private rented sector. From April 2018, landlords of privately rented homes must ensure that their properties have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of E. Yet many suggest that the onus should be placed on landlords to a greater extent to reduce heating costs in their properties. The authors of the Elsevier report suggest that there should be incentives for landlords to mandate minimum efficiency standards.
Speaking to Redbrick, Selly Oak MP Steve McCabe agreed that landlords need to do more to tackle fuel poverty. ‘I believe landlords need to make much more effort to properly insulate the properties they rent out,’ he said. Selly Oak housing is ‘often run down and poorly maintained, with extensions tacked on the side which have minimal insulation.’ McCabe favours conditions on energy efficiency being attached to a tenancy ‘in much the same way as an energy performance certificate is attached to a house sale.’
Redbrick asked Housing and Community Officer for the Guild of Students, Izzy Bygrave, whether she agrees with placing more restrictions on landlords. She responded saying: ‘Absolutely. The Guild would certainly welcome calls for the government to introduce requirements for landlords to make their homes more energy efficient – helping to reduce household bills and lower the number of students living in fuel poverty.’
Fuel providers are also partly responsible for preventing fuel poverty. As a result of Energy Company Obligation scheme introduced by the government, suppliers must improve the energy efficiency of low income households. All properties that have received energy efficiency measured must now meet an EPC rating of E.
Many reports have been critical of the government’s attempts to close the fuel poverty gap. A report by the Energy & Utilities Alliance finds that many schemes that have been introduced are not fit for purpose. New switching schemes have led to high exit fees when tenants are looking to leave their energy contracts, for example. The latest government statistics found that the average fuel poverty gap decreased by 4.4% in 2016, but a report by The Guardian also finds that the government will miss their fuel poverty targets by more than six decades.
Government fuel poverty assistance schemes have helped some, but students do not qualify for support. Izzy Bygrave is keen to point out the services that the Guild offer to students experiencing fuel poverty. ‘If any student is experiencing difficulties, struggling to pay bills, buy food or keep up with other living costs I’d advise them to go and speak to Guild Advice straight away,’ she says. ‘We can help alleviate debts with hardship funds for those experiencing financial difficulties.’
The University told Redbrick that they are ‘committed’ to supporting students who need financial help. Students are encouraged to apply for a Student Support Fund – a means-tested fund that is open to all students and offers bursaries of up to £3,000. ‘If any of our students are experiencing financial difficulty,’ they said, ‘and have already taken advantage of the existing means of support open to them (such as student loans), then they are encouraged to apply for the fund for help.’
Redbrick’s survey found that 35.1% of people do not know what fuel poverty is, suggesting that some students may be in fuel poverty without even realising it. Izzy Bygrave said that this was ‘incredibly unsettling’ and pointed out that the Guild are working to raise fuel poverty awareness.
The Guild are also working with Marks Out of Tenancy, which will allow students to rate their house and landlord – giving future students a more accurate impression of household expenses and living standards. This, they hope, will improve living standards in Selly Oak and Harborne, with landlords working harder for a more favourable review.
Local authorities are responsible for the enforcement of regulations for landlords to improve vulnerable households to an EPC rating of E. Students who have concerns about the energy efficiency of their homes can contact the Birmingham City Council’s Private Rented Sector team. Or, if students face financial difficulty, they are encouraged to contact Birmingham’s Financial Inclusion Partnership, which provides financial advice and guidance.
Energy UK told Redbrick that students facing high bills should consider switching suppliers, which could save ‘significant amounts’ of money. However, they recommend speaking to landlords to implement energy efficiency measures, which is the ‘best way to keep bills down in the long term.’
A small number of respondents in Redbrick’s survey suggested that there may be other factors that affect why students can’t heat their homes. One person told Redbrick: ‘I believe that a lot of students put themselves into situations where they prioritise other non-essential costs, [such as] socialising and nights out.’ A final-year History student said: ‘I feel me and my friends have put ourselves in a position which could seem like fuel poverty, because there is a belief that heating is expensive and therefore simply don’t turn it on, in the hope to save money. For me, I feel I could spend more money on heating, but choose not to, because it seems like a huge waste of money.’ However, Redbrick data and research from the NUS, as well as a report from Elsevier published earlier this year, indicate that many students are in genuine need of fuel poverty assistance.
NUS and Elsevier data suggests that fuel poverty is an issue that affects students nationwide. Similar studies to this have been carried out with students from the University of Sheffield, but the scope to expand this research extends much further. Ascertaining more data may put pressure on the government to provide fuel poverty assistance to students who cannot afford to heat their homes. On a local level, the authors of the Elsevier report recommend that students engage with local authorities to address areas that need targeting with energy efficiency schemes.
It’s not certain whether data from Redbrick’s survey indicates that UoB students are living in fuel poverty. Without the results of a specific calculation through government guidance, it is not possible to ascertain whether a house is in fuel poverty. However, the fact that 20.6% of respondents consider themselves to be fuel poor, 37.7% struggle to pay their heating bills, and 82.8% actively avoid heating their homes to reduce costs makes a strong case to suggest that fuel poverty may be an issue amongst students in the area.
The ‘Beast from the East’ is set to make a comeback this winter, with temperatures predicted to fall to -5°C. Students are encouraged to heat their homes to the best of their abilities and seek support from the Guild, the University, or Birmingham’s Financial Inclusion Partnership if they face financial difficulty.
Redbrick News would like to remind you that if you are unsure as to how to operate your boiler or heat your house effectively, please seek the advice of your landlord.
If you’ve been affected by fuel poverty and want to have your say, please contact us on Twitter – @redbricknews
Key contact details:
Guild Advice: firstname.lastname@example.org | 01214158965
University Financial Support: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/undergraduate/support/moneyadvice/index.aspx
Birmingham Council Private Rented Sector team: email@example.com | 01213035070
Financial Inclusion Partnership: firstname.lastname@example.org