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Central Heating: Uncovering the Impact on Social Relationships and Household Management

Plymouth and South Devon Research and Development Support Unit
Peninsula Medical School
Date: 2004


It is widely accepted that tackling fuel poverty is likely to have positive health benefits for households that receive practical interventions to make their homes warmer or more energy-efficient. In mapping the exact nature of that association, it is important to understand in detail the drivers and how such benefits are manifested. Being able to observe a process from start to finish offers valuable opportunities to catalogue the relationship and inform future policy, practice and research.

Key research Question

To determine whether positive health benefits could be detected among social housing residents after the installation of new central heating systems by studying changes in their psychosocial status. Emphasis was placed on understanding the holistic experience of living in cold homes and whether that changed with greater warmth. Specific consideration was given to the spatial use of the home and interactions with other residents, attitudes to both the property and the local area, and tenants’ knowledge of, and proficiency in, operating their energy systems. The intention was that such understanding would support more nuanced strategic interventions for social housing associations.

Summary of activity

The research was designed to expand on a previous survey of social housing tenants conducted as part of the Watcombe Housing Project in South Devon and test the validity of its conclusions on a larger sample. Tenant representatives were involved in designing the survey, which was completed before and after the installation of central heating.

A total of 43 quantitative structured interviews were conducted before the installation of central heating, with a subset of 12 semi-structured interviews. Following installation, the same sample were approached, with 38 residents agreeing to participate in a structured interview and the same 12 residents participating in an additional semi-structured interview.


Overall, the results confirmed the findings of the Watcombe study, which had noted clear differences in the experiences of residents before and after the installation of new central heating systems. It detected improvements in self-reported health and also changes in the ways tenants used space in that they utilised much more of their houses after installation. Personal relationships improved, as did motivation to maintain their properties. This was particularly so for people with respiratory illnesses, but improvements in mental health were also noted as levels of stress declined. Tenants’ social relationships developed, both with other family members and with wider networks – for example, respondents felt able to invite people round more often.

While the majority of respondents were happy with the practical information on operating the new system, there was evidence that a significant number of tenants were dissatisfied with the ongoing nature of communications they received from their housing association. This was underpinned by a sense of powerlessness over the timing and implementation of upgrades. There were also negative comments on the quality of work, as well as parts of the property that were not subjected to improvements, such as draughty windows.


The report argues that its findings demonstrate how evaluating the impact of energy efficiency works must go beyond practical considerations of thermal comfort and other statistically measurable indicators and incorporate personal and social factors such as personal wellbeing, the use of space and pride/investment in property.

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