Austerity has led to an ugly food bank boom across the UK. Civil society – led by the Trussell Trust – has created a network which meets emergency needs for those unable to afford food. Those judged eligible are given food boxes containing a three-day supply of food. And now, sitting alongside food poverty in our Victorian-wannabe society, our poorest citizens are also threatened by fuel poverty.
Around 17% of UK households struggle to meet their domestic energy needs, and the resulting exposure to cold, damp and mould in homes is linked to a range of respiratory and cardiovascular health problems, “excess winter deaths”, developmental problems for children and mental health concerns.
These problems have prompted energy company Npower to consider spending up to £20m on an initiative to create “fuel banks”. Similar to food banks, fuel banks will provide vouchers to those in dire need to meet their energy costs for a certain period of time, either from or alongside food banks. This could work by offering emergency credit vouchers for those who pay for their gas or electricity through keypads.
On the face of it, fuel banks are well-intentioned. Depending on the details (eligibility conditions, the value of the vouchers, and so on), they could allow some respite during short-term emergencies. People facing sanctions on their social security payments, for instance, or low-income households with other budgetary crises – particularly during winter.
There is also some evidence that those receiving emergency food boxes from food banks are unable to use their contents if they need to be heated or cooked, due to being unable to afford gas or electricity. Providing energy vouchers alongside food boxes therefore seems sensible, and may go some way towards alleviating the survivalist dilemma faced by some households of “heating or eating”.
Fixing the symptoms
But let’s not get carried away. Fuel banks can be no more than a sticking plaster for people who can’t afford heating – fuel poverty requires emergency surgery, not first-aid.
Policies which subsidise energy prices tend to be inefficient and only work for a limited time. People fall into fuel poverty due to a combination of badly built homes, high energy prices and low incomes and yet fuel banks and energy subsidy schemes simply focus on the symptoms without addressing the causes. Furthermore, any praise for Npower’s benevolence must be tempered by reminding ourselves that it retains a profitable position as one of the UK’s “Big Six” energy providers.
The symbolism is also concerning – what do fuel banks say about our society’s desire to properly grapple with fuel poverty? Their development is another step towards what social geographer Stefan Bouzarovski terms the “privatisation and residualisation” of fuel poverty policy (in England – the relevant powers are largely devolved), where action is no longer funded from general taxation, and overall ambition is curtailed so only the most vulnerable are targeted.
Perversely, fuel banks could undermine the case for effective action on fuel poverty: “Look, we’re already doing something about it – why should we bother regulating housing or energy?”
Helping the fuel poor escape their predicament requires much more than the temporary, selective relief of a few from an energy giant with a corporate social responsibility agenda. We all have the human right to an adequate standard of living which includes food and a safe, warm home – a society which respects human dignity must keep eradication as the ultimate goal of fuel poverty policy.
Political ambition, effective policies on housing, energy and low incomes and a commitment to the fulfilment of human rights are what the fuel poor desperately need – not charity.