A short history of Fuel Poverty

Fuel poverty is usually defined as the inability of a household to afford sufficient warmth. The causes and consequences of fuel poverty are complex, but typically the inhabitants of a fuel poor household will suffer uncomfortably cold temperatures because their home is bad at retaining heat. Future blog posts will examine some of the negative health impacts of cold houses, but here I give a broad overview of the recent historical development of fuel poverty.

While poor housing conditions have been considered with varying focus and effectiveness by government for at least the last 150 years, fuel poverty in its present form is a more recent phenomena. Following the advent of the 1973 oil crisis, groups like the National Right to Fuel Campaign were set up in 1975 with the goal of keeping fuel poverty on the political agenda. An early publication was Paul Richardson’s ‘Fuel poverty’ in 1978 which focused on the fuel usage of low income council housing tenants. Richardson highlighted three paths available to those experiencing fuel poverty, which were “to run up arrears, potentially leading to disconnection of their fuel supply; to reduce their standards of heating to levels which may be undesirably low; or to cut back on other items of expenditure, which may be equally undesirable” (Richardson, 1978).

The term fuel poverty was first used in parliament on the 28th of July 1977 by the Labour MP for Walthamstow, Eric Deakins, in a debate about heating costs. “The problem of what has been termed fuel poverty is one that has to be attacked on two fronts: first we must ensure that poorer people can pay for the fuel they require and, secondly, we must see to it that everyone—particularly those most at risk from the cold, such as the elderly and the increasing number of the elderly who are very old indeed—get enough warmth.” (HC, 1977)

A key early academic work was due to Boardman (1991). This work laid the foundations for many of the policy developments in later years, most notably the 10% definition – which says that a household is in fuel poverty if it would have to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel in order to achieve a comfortable home. The book argues that fuel poverty is a distinct form of poverty, not merely an aspect or direct consequence of general impoverishment. This is most readily observed in the distinction that Boardman draws between the purchase of fuel and warmth – the former is independent of the housing structure and heating efficiency, while the latter is fundamentally determined by the ‘technical characteristics of the heating system’ as well as the thermal characteristics of the dwelling. This distinction is not true of other commodities such as food, for which the characteristics of static capital such as cookers do not determine the calorific or the nutritional value, and thus cost, of food consumed.

Fuel poverty first received specific legislative attention in England and Wales under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. Following the recommendations of the 1999 inter-ministerial group on Fuel Poverty (Gilbertson, 2006), the bill required the secretary of state to set up a programme to deal with fuel poverty, which is defined in the bill as “the inability of a household to keep warm at reasonable cost”. Around the same time, a scheme called Warm Front (WF) was implemented. Between 2000 and 2013 it improved the energy efficiency of 2.3 million English homes (Sovacol, 2015). Sovacol highlights failures of targeting in WF, citing a report which found “only 42 percent of fuel poor households received assistance under WF and that 75 percent of those participating were not, in actuality, fuel poor”, other assessments he cites found similar inaccuracies. Recently, the most significant government policy shift in the field of fuel poverty was the move away from the 10% definition towards the Low Income High Cost definition (LIHC).  Alongside this, the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) obliges the energy suppliers to provide energy efficiency measures for alleviating fuel poverty under three schemes. As of December 2016, the long future of ECO is under consultation.

Over the last 40 years, the historical development of fuel poverty has been one of multiple transformations. Initially, in the late 1970s it was the focus of non-governmental organisations and action groups. Over time central government took the issue more seriously, and fuel poverty arguably received greatest attention in the Warm Front program which ran through the first decade of the 21st century. More recently, government austerity policies have seen a reduction in expenditure on interventions, and a general shift of the focus away from direct policies to one in which non-governmental bodies are responsible for dealing with fuel poverty.


Richardson, P. (1978) Fuel Poverty. Papers in Community Studies, 20, University of York

HC (2015) Energy and Climate Change Committee – Ninth Report Smart meters: progress or delay? Link 

Boardman, B. (1991). Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Gilbertson, J. Stevens, M. Stiell, B. Thorogood, N. (2006) Home is where the hearth is: grant recipients’ views of England’s home energy efficiency scheme (Warm Front) Soc Sci Med, 63. 946–956

Sefton T (2004). Aiming high: an evaluation of the potential contribution of Warm Front towards meeting the Government’s fuel poverty target in England. CASE report 28. Centre for analysis of social exclusion. London, UK: London School of Economics and Political Science.

Sovacool, B . K. (2015) Fuel poverty, affordability, and energy justice in England: Policy insights from the Warm Front Program, Energy 93, (1) 361-371


How hot is too hot? Thermal comfort in the UK’s changing climate.

The UK climate is getting hotter. Predictions suggest that the south east might be 5°C hotter on average by the end of the century (Hulme, 2002). The government is also legally committed to reducing our CO2 emissions. These projected changes will require us to drastically rethink the way we live, and carefully design and modify our buildings with these considerations in mind.

Before we look at the risks of overheating, it’s important to remember how deadly cold winters can be to those who can’t afford to heat their homes. Last winter (2014/15), fuel poverty lead to the deaths of 15,000 people in the UK. This winter the effect is likely to be less dramatic, as temperatures have been so mild that met office records have been broken, but excess winter deaths will be with us in the UK for some years to come – unless homes fuel poverty is tackled.

UK Average Temperature Anomaly over the last 100 years. (Data source: Met Office ) UK Average Temperature Anomaly over the last 100 years. (Data source: Met Office )

The main determiner of domestic energy use (and CO2 emissions) is heating. The amount a home is heated depends on many interrelated factors such as the physical characteristics of the house, the weather outside but also on the preferences of the occupants. The occupant preferences are complicated to model but the key factor at play is people’s thermal comfortPut simply, this is whether people feel comfortable in a given set of conditions. Thermal comfort itself depends on a whole host of factors like an individual’s metabolism, how much people wear or what activities they’re up to – gyms need to be cooler than offices, for example.

As a rough rule of thumb, offices should at least 20°C, but what about an upper limit? How hot is too hot? The answer, as with many things in building science, isn’t simple. Zero Carbon Hub have published a review that looks into the various measures of overheating. The industry is split as how exactly to define overheating – some say there should be maximum acceptable temperature for buildings (around 28°) others say it depends on the outside temperature because people adapt and are more accepting of warmer temperatures in the summer. So where does this leave us?

The most recent example of the deadly impact of high temperatures comes from 2003. Across Europe, the extreme temperatures claimed the lives of over 70,000 people. In the England the toll was lower, at around 2000 excess deaths. This demonstrates that the heatwave was not felt equally everywhere – France suffered particularly badly where the high temperatures killed around 15,000 people.

Average temperature anomaly July 20 – August 20 2003 (source: Reto Stockli and Robert Simmon, based upon data provided by the MODIS Land Science Team) Average temperature anomaly July 20 – August 20 2003 (source: Reto Stockli and Robert Simmon, based upon data provided by the MODIS Land Science Team)

Of course, like excess winter deaths, the deadly effects of high temperatures are not evenly distributed through society – the worst effected are usually older, sick or less well off. The UK government has responded, based on the projection that the 2003 extreme temperatures will be ‘normal’ by 2040. The NHS has published a Heatwave Plan for England which outlines what needs to be done in the event of a heatwave.

Responsibility also falls on landlords, local authorities and building owners to ensure that buildings are fit for habitation and work. The UK building stock is diverse and measures that work for one situation might not be effective in another. Careful attention is required to ensure any retrofit an owner installs, whether they be the installation of solar shading or improved ventilation, do not increase the energy consumption of the building. Air conditioning systems are often less efficient than natural ventilation.

The house I grew up in was a poorly insulated 17th century Welsh farmhouse, so the risk associated with overheating there are far less than those of being too cold in winter. But in general the UK housing stock is not currently equipped to deal with temperatures that are projected to occur in the decades to come. As ever, it tends to be that those in society least able to make changes to their living conditions are those at greatest risk of harm.

A balance needs to be struck by policy makers to ensure the overheating risks are addressed without compromising the essential work in improving housing efficiency and reducing our CO2 emissions. Given the lessons of 2003, this problem is far greater than issues of comfort, but potentially one of life and death.


M Hulme, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, & UK Climate Impacts Programme. (2002). Climate change scenarios for the United Kingdom :  UKCIP02 Norwich: Tyndall Centre.

Academic references I have collected are available here

“…at the scale observable by our unaided senses”

One of the reasons Physics is seen as difficult to understand is because it tends to consider, in the popular imagination at least, very strange and far away things. The early universe, for example, was very much unlike anything that happens near us now in almost every respect. It was hot and dense and full of particles and not-really-particles interacting in ways they don’t often interact anymore – more about all this can be found here – understanding this requires understanding difficult maths and complicated observational techniques, and that makes Physics seem tricky.

The primary information that comes from experiments about very small things and very big things is almost totally inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have very expensive equipment. You can’t see the glow left after the big bang with the naked eye, it’s so faint that it has no direct effect on our daily lives.  The curiosities of quantum mechanics are totally shielded from our direct perception, and there’s no way anyone is going to get anywhere near a black hole, probably ever.

But, as I discovered while auditing the a class of L Mahadevan in fall 2010, there are far stranger things than electrons that we know much less about which are present in our everyday lives. The work that Professor Mahadevan and his group does is eloquently characterised as considering phenomena ‘at the scale observable by our unaided senses’, and shows that the mathematics which describes the curvature of a lily petal is arguably more subtle than that which describes the electron, or even the precession of planets around the Sun. Mahadevan’s group considers the physical and mathematical origins of the diverse structures observed in biology, so called soft-matter, from the folds of the human brain to the self organising thermo-regulation of bee swarms.

from Liang and Mahadevan (2011)  from Liang and Mahadevan (2011)

At the early stages of my Physics training I was driven by the strange attraction of fundamental physics. While there’s definitely value in considering very small and far away things, it took a long time to appreciate that there is a great deal of fascinating work to done at the length scale of the everyday.