For 350,000 struggling with bills, this action plan can't come soon enough
London is a city governed by plans, strategies, and with a vision document for everything. From the London Plan to the Air Quality Strategy, the Police and Crime Plan to Municipal Waste, it seems every aspect of London life is being charted through a GLA strategy.
But when it comes to fuel poverty, London has had no such strategy. Until now.
In September 2013 the previous Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, declared that he had agreed an ‘Affordable Warmth and Health Action Plan’. On paper, this sounded excellent. London had a plan for tackling cold homes.
However, as was always the case with Boris, all was not as it appeared.
It soon became clear that this ‘Affordable Warmth and Health Action Plan’ was not borne out of mayoral endeavour, but was the work of the London HECA Forum which is made up of local authority energy and fuel poverty officers from across the capital.
Moreover, given the resources available to the former mayor to tackle cold homes and the policy levers he could use to take up the actions in the HECA document, the mayor’s activity in this area was conspicuous by its absence.
But three years on with the arrival of Sadiq Khan at City Hall, things have really turned around.
In the past few weeks, Mayor Khan has announced that the GLA will be producing its own Fuel Poverty Action Plan, which will sit alongside the mayor’s other core environmental policy documents.
For the nearly 350,000 London households struggling to pay high bills, this Action Plan can’t come soon enough.
With an increase of over 22,000 homes on the previous year’s figures, the 6.5 per cent increase in fuel poor homes accounts for 69 per cent of the national increase.
Behind these statistics are the awful realities of cold homes. The public health impact is what most often comes to mind when we talk of fuel poverty – and it’s with good reason.
Children living in cold homes have a 30 per cent greater risk of admission to hospital. The phenomenon of excess winter deaths (EWDs) is also closely related. Thirty per cent of EWDs are believed to result from cold homes.
The impact is not just limited to physical health. Financial stress about rising energy bills can lead to anxiety and mental health problems, including suicide.
It reduces the educational attainment of children by depriving youngsters of a warm room in which to read and do homework. It also hits the local economy with debt and arrears holding back consumer spending.
Above all, it is completely shameful that one of the wealthiest countries in the world still hasn’t found a solution to keeping our citizens warm in the winter.
It is not beyond the wit of man to eradicate fuel poverty. But it does require sustained determination, resources and cross-agency working at numerous levels.
In addition to the Fuel Poverty Action Plan, there are other positive signs that policy is moving in the right direction.
Islington Council’s award winning referral scheme SHINE has just received some funding from an energy company which will allow their services to be made available across London.
Established in 2010, the programme processed 5,400 referrals leading to over 25,000 interventions in the first three years, making it the largest referral network in the country.
The network develops lasting relationships with statutory and voluntary agencies that provide services from personal debt assistance, energy saving measures, befriending services and replacement of old heating systems.
The scheme has saved residents £550,000 per year alone through energy efficiency interventions, with 60 per cent of clients stating they were not aware of the services they were referred to beforehand.
Multi-agency working is going to be at the heart of how we successfully identify fuel poor homes and provide targeted support. However, it’s also vital London improves the poor energy efficiency of its housing stock.
The mayor’s latest announcement of a one million pound Better Boilers Pilot Scheme to replace or repair boilers with poor energy efficiency is the sort of policy response that goes to the root of why we have a Cold Homes Crisis in London.
It’s a solid start from the mayor and one that will get others thinking about what role they should play in the new Action Plan.
As the countdown to Christmas continues, there will be many hundreds of thousands of Londoners having to decide whether they heat or eat during the festive season. That cannot be allowed to continue.
My resolution for 2017 will be to fight even harder for resources to combat fuel poverty, so that next winter, more Londoners get the help and advice they need to stay warm and well at Christmas.
Leonie Cooper is the Labour Party’s environment spokesperson on the London Assembly
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