Aimee Ambrose, Graeme Sherriff, William Baker, Jenny Brierley, Danielle Butler, Robert Marchand, Trivess Moore, Marilyn Smith
The article was published by the Housing Studies Association on 22nd June 2020.
Based on interviews with householders, we reflect on how fuel poor households are being impacted by COVID-19 and lockdown.
The implications of the pandemic for fuel poor households (i.e. those
who struggle to afford to heat their homes to a comfortable
temperature) have received very little coverage or consideration,
despite the fact that in the wake of the crisis, many more households
are likely to fall into this category. Where the energy related impacts
of the pandemic have been discussed, they have focussed on the amount
we’re spending on energy during lockdown. However, our recent research
on the impact of the pandemic on fuel poor households suggests that the
pandemic and associated lockdown have raised a range of (sometimes
surprising) complications for the fuel poor. Most significantly, the
lockdown has disrupted the, often ingenious, coping strategies employed
by the fuel poor to stay comfortable and reduce their heating costs.
Recent research has revealed that households are spending an average of £16 a month more on energy as a result of the lockdown . This may not sound like a huge increase but we know that the lowest income and most vulnerable households are concentrated in the least energy efficient housing  – therefore the energy cost increases they encounter during the lockdown are likely to be substantially higher than the average and are added to already strained budgets. It could also be claimed that the recent spells of warm weather will have reduced heating costs for many but, as our research underlines, the temperature inside our homes doesn’t always keep pace with the weather outside. It can also be hard for the many people spending lots of time sedentary within the home during lockdown to feel warm and comfortable, even on a mild day.
We caught up with three former research participants who have all contributed to a previous study of how fuel poverty is experienced by low income households in private rented accommodation, and asked them how lock down was going for them. We asked them how they were managing their energy costs and whether they were managing to stay warm and comfortable. Here are their stories.
We last spoke to Mo in 2017. He’s still living in the same bedsit in Hackney- his home for 17 years now. He’s now 53. Since we last spoke to him, his rent has increased from £150 per week to £180. Until recently his job in a small local shop paid around £100 per week. He ends up with about £50 a week left for all other expenses. He says he spends around £30 a week on electricity via a pre-payment meter, sometimes more in cold weather. His bedsit is heated by an electric oil filled radiator and he cooks using a microwave and a two ring worktop hob. He has a radio for entertainment.
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, Mo has lost his job and says he has never been so unhappy. He worked for a few weeks after cases began to rise in London but has long term respiratory problems and mental health issues and became terrified of going to work:
“I had huge anxiety every time I had to go there and it got worse and worse. People were not always respectful and didn’t keep their distance. I was scared for my life. So I had to quit. I tried to get my boss to furlough me but we fell out about it.”
When we first met him in 2017, Mo struggled to keep his bedsit at a comfortable temperature and would spend much of his time in bed when he wasn’t at work. The combination of the loss of his job and the lockdown has been bad news for Mo. It has taken away his usual coping strategies such as going to the library and cafes:
“The main things that I miss are being in work- it was always warm in there. I sat by a gas fire in the winter and that was bliss really. I miss being able to go to the library and read the paper in a warm place before maybe going to a café and nursing a tea for a bit. It was a social thing but also about saving electricity – a pound on a mug of tea was much cheaper than a couple of hours in the flat and nicer, too. I miss that and riding the buses. It’s been warm but when it hasn’t, I miss those places.”
The financial pressure caused by the loss of his job is also exacerbating unhealthy eating habits:
“I’ve mostly eaten from tins and packets for a long time but now I’ve stopped warming the food – it does help my electric go further and I’m still getting fed. But your belly doesn’t feel the same as it does after a hot meal.”
When we spoke to Eadie in 2017, she was desperately unhappy with where she lived and was struggling to adequately heat her home on a low income. She was scared to use her gas central heating as she feared it was unsafe and her landlord refused to get it looked at. Catching up with her in 2020, we hoped her situation might have improved. Unfortunately things had only got worse for Eadie.
Eadie was still suffering from anxiety and depression and her asthma remained severe. The lockdown has raised some interesting dilemmas for Eadie. She described how even in the recent warm weather, she had struggled to feel warm:
“It’s been very warm for the time of year and I’m grateful for that but the house doesn’t get warm even when it’s warm outside. It must take time for it to warm the bricks through.”
Her response to this has been to spend as much time outside as possible but this strategy brings its own challenges, as she explains:
“I used to visit my daughter and the kids as much as possible but that’s not an option. Not with my lungs as they are. It’s too risky…when the warm weather came, I put a chair out on the street. It was so lovely to feel the warmth on my bones. So lovely. But there were people up and down and I felt so tense and unsafe…I ended up in the park where there was more room but had to dodge joggers. I was warm but scared. Now I walk as much as I can which has the benefit of making me sleep better so I don’t notice the cold at night so much.”
Sasha lives with her son, now five. They live in what she describes as a “two up, two down” house in east Sheffield. Her son has had complex health issues since birth and so she took him out of school before the schools formally closed, fearing for his health. At this point, she had to quit her casual cleaning job and increase her benefits claim in order to care for him. Like Eadie, Sasha’s house doesn’t feel warm even in warm weather and the additional costs associated with having her son at home are placing a major strain on her:
“Now he’s not at school, I have to feed him all his meals here. He never stops eating and he does complain that the house is cold. So I have to keep him distracted or he asks for food all the time. He would prefer to sit and watch television but if he does that then I need to put the heating on…we walk a lot but in quiet places because I don’t want him exposed. I get him to run fast when we get near the house so he’s warm when we get inside.”
As this quote outlines, Sasha is working hard to find strategies to cope with her son’s demand for food and warmth in the absence of school. Feeling cold and uncomfortable puts a strain on their relationship. She described a further strategy which relied on making the most of passive solar heating in the house:
“The sun starts off on the back of the house and by mid-morning, his room is pretty warm on a sunny day, so we play in there until it moves round and then later we play in my bedroom, later in the day. We’re both so much more relaxed when we’re warm and the sun is shining and we argue less then.”
Lockdown is a challenging time for many. These householder accounts reveal the extent to which it is adding to existing stresses in homes and affecting health and wellbeing. The fuel poor live in the most poorly performing homes and these can be challenging to live in under normal circumstances. Spending more of their budget on energy than more affluent householders means that even what may appear to be small increases can have a profound effect.
A narrow focus risks obscuring the bigger picture. It is not solely about the home, and nor is it only about energy. By considering only the home we risk forgetting that the spaces of coping are varied and dispersed. With libraries and cafes closed, and public transport services limited, those opportunities to seek out warmth in a public space are lost, and those opportunities for warmth and companionship with family and friends are restricted. Even public areas and front yards become spaces of anxiety and coping strategies must be adapted or reinvented. With more time spent at home with the whole family, grocery costs must be added to the balance sheet as must the energy used for cooking. Eating food cold from the tin may save electricity but at a huge cost to wellbeing at an already difficult and isolated time. Being told that the average bill increase is (only) £16 is surely cold comfort.