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