An uplifting reminder of the collective good we achieve; a stark warning of how far we have to go
Written by Matthew Copeland, Policy Manager at NEA
We have reached the end of another NEA conference, and, yet again, it didn’t disappoint. With seven sessions spread over two days, we heard about all aspects of fuel poverty, from the lived experience, to innovative heating solutions. First and foremost, this years’ conference was, as it always is, uplifting.
Uplifting in the sense that it is the time of year where almost three hundred people, all passionate about helping others, come together to discuss the collective good we achieve, and how we can do it better. Uplifting by the way that we are all there for a common purpose, with little discussion needed as to why we have that purpose. Uplifting that we work to overcome so many challenges to ensure that more people can keep warm.
Our keynote speaker, Dan Jarvis MBE MP, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, opened conference with the perfect framing – “it is unacceptable that each winter tens of thousands of people are dying because of the cold. I know this is not easy to solve. But how a society care for its elderly and most vulnerable is how they should be judged – and we should be judged harshly”.
We heard from NEA’s own Jess Cook on the similarities and differences between energy and water poverty, and what could be done to help solve both. Greg Fell from Sheffield City Region told us what it meant to be a director of public health, with encouraging thoughts on how fuel poverty could be addressed to reduce future NHS costs and pressures. Nicky Hodges from CSE told us about trials at local authorities that are investigating how to get the most out of new PRS regulations through different methods of enforcement.
One of my most memorable moments was Lesley Tudor-Snodin taking us through the challenges of getting fuel poor homes connected to the gas network. 24 steps to get a connection. 24 hoops for some of the most vulnerable people in society to jump through. But a wonderful team, and heroic perseverance meant that over 100 households received a connection through the project. It was NEA in a nutshell. Making programmes work that seem to be designed to fail.
But “Connecting Homes for Health” was not the limit of challenges we heard about. Not by a long shot. Peter Smith took us through this years’ fuel poverty monitor, where 85% of respondents to a call for evidence said they had ‘faced challenges in ensuring the fuel poor could get maximum benefit from a fair and functioning energy market’ and 100% of respondents in Wales stated they had ‘encountered challenges in improving energy efficiency standards’ in fuel poor homes. John French from the Community Council for Northern Ireland took us through the potential of huge rises in the cost of essentials in the aftermath of a no-deal Brexit. All a stark warning of how far we still have to go.
But there is hope for change. Meghna Tewari from Ofgem took us through their new vulnerability strategy, which should result in better protections for fuel poor households in an increasingly complex energy market. And on Tuesday, Olivia Haslam from BEIS explained some of the changes that they have proposed within the 2019 Fuel Poverty Strategy consultation – a well-timed presentation as the consultation closed only the day before. Of course, NEA has responded to this, with 10 priority recommendations for BEIS to take up. Amongst others: the fuel poverty targets and milestones need to be maintained; the Warm Home Discount must be continued and increase in scope; energy efficiency must become a national infrastructure priority; and Government need to introduce a National Energy Efficiency Programme to get back on track towards meeting the statutory fuel poverty target and support the UK Government’s net-zero commitment.
Our inspirational speaker, author Kerry Hudson, read extracts from her book ‘Lowborn’ in an attempt to show us what growing up in real poverty is like. Her emotional tale of clothes too tight, of landlords exploiting people at their most vulnerable, and of mushrooms growing in bedrooms really hit home, and reminded us all of why we do what we do.
At the close of conference, our Chief Executive Adam Scorer said that “If it comes to next years’ conference and we’ve missed the 2020 milestone, then push will have come to shove, and we will need to find a way to push fuel poverty back up the agenda”. And he is right. The next year is crucial, and we must do what we can to push the agenda as much as possible through difficult political times.
I’ll leave you with one more thought from conference. In his presentation, Matt Neal from NEF talked about hope. Specifically, through a letter from a man whose life shattered around him. “Hope is a fundamental driver for the majority of us… the truth is, everyone’s life is a paper-thin distance from total disaster”, he wrote. But hope was given back to him by kind strangers offering the possibility of living in a warm home. We must continue to give hope to others. And we must hope that Government take action to ensure that everyone can live in a warm and safe home.