Despite the evidence linking them together, the impact of fuel poverty and cold homes on people’s health is still being overlooked by the government, warns Jo Butcher
With the summer we had, it’s been easy to forget the long, bitter winter before. But when it comes to setting long term policy to tackle fuel poverty in the UK, it’s important that fuel poverty and cold homes are included in the strategic thinking and action of health decision makers.
‘Cold, poorly insulated homes have a dreadful impact on the health of the young and old’
Press coverage about the UK’s poor performance regarding life expectancy compared to its European neighbours reported earlier this year fixated on whether the NHS or individual lifestyle choices were to blame. The huge impact of fuel poverty and cold homes on many of the “big killers”, such as respiratory illness and heart disease, didn’t feature ↓ despite a body of evidence linking the two.
Cold, poorly insulated homes have a dreadful impact on the health of the young and old. According to the World Health Organization around 30 per cent of excess winter deaths can be attributed to cold indoor temperatures, which based on current figures means approximately 7,200 people died last year due to cold housing in the winter months.
Meanwhile, 1.6 million UK children are living in fuel poverty. Evidence suggests these children are twice as likely to develop asthma and teenagers are at least four times more likely to develop multiple mental health problems compared to young people who have always lived in a warm home.
The scant focus within public health policy of the impacts on children is deeply worrying. But awareness is increasing, thanks to children’s charities, academics, researchers, fuel poverty groups and Friends of the Earth, which commissioned Sir Michael Marmot’s 2011 report on the health impacts of cold homes.
This year we saw a big shake-up in England’s health system, with responsibility for public health given back to councils (as it was until 1973). In principle this is a good thing. Councils are able to affect many of the things that determine people’s health and wellbeing through the planning system, housing or local environmental health policies − helping to shift the focus towards preventing rather than just treating ill health.
‘Obviously we don’t want to see money taken away from other worthy causes. More government funding is needed’
New health and wellbeing will bring together leaders across the NHS, public health and social care system to better coordinate and integrate health services. But research by Age UK found that only 4 per cent of the new local health and wellbeing strategies in England are prioritising fuel poverty, and an astonishing 42 per cent of the boards are failing even to mention it as an issue.
There is much more that we can do to deepen understanding of the role of energy efficiency in improving public health.
We need to ensure that councils and clinical commissioning groups have the best and up to date data and evidence to inform their strategies. Friends of the Earth is delighted to have the support and engagement of Public Health England for an evidence summit in November. The event will bring together influential experts and stakeholders from across health, fuel poverty, housing and energy efficiency, to generate much needed proposals and action to maximise the evidence base in health decision making.
In addition, every health and wellbeing board should include a representative from housing strategy. The Department for Education, which is being dangerously quiet on fuel poverty, should speak up about how cold homes affect children’s learning.
‘Use revenue from carbon taxes and trading to fund a massive energy efficiency programme focused on insulating the homes of vulnerable households’
But with the annual public health budget across all English local authorities just £2.7 billion, and confirmation that the government’s £20 million “warm homes healthy people” fund will not be available for a third year, boards face irreconcilable choices between funding energy efficiency programmes or, say, drug and alcohol and sexual health services.
Obviously we don’t want to see money taken away from other worthy causes. More government funding is needed.
Health bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing are making their voices heard through the Energy Bill Revolution. This coalition group, co-founded by Friends of the Earth, is calling for the government to use revenue from carbon taxes and trading to fund a massive energy efficiency programme focused on insulating the homes of low income and vulnerable households.
Evidence shows this solution could deliver huge health, social, environmental and economic benefits and ensure no one should ever have to shiver and suffer in their own home again. The government must show the political will to make it happen.
Jo Butcher is health and fuel poverty adviser to Friends of the Earth and the Energy Bill Revolution