In the mid-2000s, the UK government introduced a new framework for measuring the progress of local government in key public service agendas. This required every local authority (LA) in England to select a dashboard of indicators that best reflected their local priorities (plus a list of statutory measures) from a suite of 200 as the basis for a customised Local Area Agreement (LAA). Among the full list was NI187 ‘Tackling Fuel Poverty’. The inclusion of this indicator reflected the rising importance of the topic in national policy, as exemplified by the 2001 Fuel Poverty Strategy. However, despite rising levels of fuel poverty, only 40 councils have so far adopted NI187. Understanding why so few LAs have chosen to prioritise this issue at a strategic level is important.
Key research Question
The dissertation sought to examine why the indicator had proved unpopular in general and also to assess progress among those LAs that had adopted NI187 and the effectiveness of using this type of performance framework to monitor fuel poverty work.
Summary of activity
The research focused on London as little research existed on fuel poverty in the capital, despite indications that it was underestimated, and also because only three LAs (in London?) had selected NI187 as part of their own agreement.
Firstly, the project involved a review of literature on fuel poverty, focusing more specifically on local government initiatives. Data were generated through semi-structured interviews with representatives of central government, LAs and partner agencies, exploring the reasons why NI187 had been incorporated into the LAAs of some areas, but not others, and what emergent impacts could be identified. Specifically, six LAs in London were selected for an in-depth focus, three of which had adopted the indicator, whereas three of which had not. In addition, a statistical comparative analysis of performance data from the emergent Department of Energy and Climate Change and LAs was undertaken, both for the areas that had reported on NI187 and for those that had not selected the indicator.
Although it has raised the profile of fuel poverty and encouraged some partnership working on the issues, overall NI187 represents an ineffective approach to tackling fuel poverty. It is viewed only in an environmental context and does not incorporate health and social considerations.
Among the six LAs, those that had chosen NI187 gave a number of reasons for its adoption, including the increasing importance of fuel poverty in their area, that it served as a public statement communicating the value they attached to the issue, and a perception that the indicator would offer a unified process for measuring the issue.
Those LAs that had declined to include it indicated that they believed their existing monitoring systems to be adequate and that NI187 would provide no extra insight into fuel poverty. An important factor was cost: that adopting it would legally bind the authority into a programme of work that could be very costly, yet the target would remain unachievable, given the other factors pushing fuel poverty up, and that such an investment would be hard to justify against the competing demands of other priorities. Preference for another indicator, namely, NI186 ‘per capita reduction in CO2 emissions’, was also a factor. This means that NI187 is likely to continue to be avoided.
LAs also experienced difficulties in undertaking the necessary monitoring surveys, which hindered the production of performance data, but the lack of sanctions for late reporting was also a factor. Figures that were obtained revealed that London was performing worst in the UK in terms of NI187, although the low levels of adoption made it hard to judge real progress.
Clarification of the strategic objectives of NI187 should be undertaken ahead of the next round of LAA decision-making (2011).
The data collection requirements for NI187 must be simplified and standardised, with best practice shared across the country.
Further research is needed on several areas, including how such indicators complement other fuel poverty instruments, how they link to areas such as health and how they respond to external factors. Analysis of subsequent data outputs will give a clearer picture of progress.