Northern Ireland operates a devolved government administration and has developed variations of housing and energy policies that are distinct from those in other UK regions. Even before this, housing strategies developed along unique pathways. Therefore, policies designed on the basis of evidence from other parts of the UK or beyond may not be appropriate for Northern Ireland and their approaches may not be relevant.
In order to design policies and programmes that identify the key regional priorities and target resources where they are needed, it is important to have an overview of the evidence to date, as well as accurate data that reflect the actual circumstances of households in the province.
Key research Question
The study aimed to review historical research and conduct a comprehensive analysis of the current state of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland within the wider context of government policy and funding in the province. Evidence was sought on both the demographic characteristics (e.g. age, family composition and location) and the practical aspects of fuel poverty (e.g. debt and disconnection). The research compared the strategic approach used in Northern Ireland with that implemented elsewhere in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland, as well as the differences in factors such as energy costs.
The updated baseline would enable priority actions and policy measures to be identified.
Summary of activity
Qualitative data were drawn from desk-based research and interviews with key stakeholders. This version of the report was an update of the first edition (1996) and incorporated additional data from the House Condition Surveys (1991 and 1996).
Earlier studies indicated that in terms of a number of socioeconomic measures such as income, long-term unemployment and housing conditions Northern Ireland is a relatively disadvantaged region of the UK. In addition, energy costs are higher – fuel spend is 20% more than the UK average. An analysis of House Condition Survey data confirms that fuel poverty is a major issue in Northern Ireland. Those in poor-quality homes, on prepayment meters, in fuel debt or lacking the funds to improve their properties all spend far above the average on fuel. Demographic data suggest that groups at greater risk of fuel poverty are older people and those living in rural areas.
In the Republic of Ireland local-level data are relatively abundant, whereas the national picture is sketchier. Conversely, in Northern Ireland the situation is reversed, with limited availability of micro-level data but more substantial national data.
There are significant gaps in the evidence base used to identify which groups are at greater risk of fuel poverty (e.g. people with disabilities and lone parents).
While separate schemes such as the Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme (DEES) and Home Energy Conservation Act are addressing fuel poverty, there is no overarching government strategy for the province. Voluntary sector agencies do not operate within an agreed definition of or approach to fuel poverty, and, while many are active in tackling its effects, they do not assess the value of their services, and many do not collect data. However, there is an emerging consensus on the need to coordinate their voices.
A comparison with fuel poverty policies in four other European countries (plus Great Britain as a whole) identifies a range of approaches.
Separate recommendations were outlined for government policy and the voluntary sector.
Government should develop an evidence-based fuel poverty strategy with short-term and long-term goals. Examples of short-term goals include widening the criteria for cold weather payments and abolishing the standing charge for power card meters. Suggestions for the long term include an increase in funding, an extended remit for the DEES and the introduction of a compulsory Standard Assessment Procedure rating for all new homes. The overall objective of such a strategy should be to ensure that all homes attain a living room temperature of 18°C and have the opportunity to acquire central heating. By adjusting existing programmes and policies, the government of Northern Ireland can achieve a number of these goals without additional spending.
Guidance for the voluntary sector recommended the establishment of a fuel poverty coalition to coordinate the sector’s input and publicise its role and value in addressing the issue, but also to provide support to policy where relevant and direct central resources.
More detailed Northern Ireland-specific data and analysis are required on a range of topics. This should include better correlation of housing data with income, information on groups identified as potentially at a high risk of fuel poverty, disaggregated data down to small geographical areas, and practical housing-related data such as the prevalence of low-energy bulbs in homes and householders’ satisfaction with their heating systems. Data from the DEES should be analysed to provide an in-depth picture of the impact of insulation. The voluntary sector should play a key role in research and data collection, and relevant funders (e.g. the Energy Saving Trust and Eaga Charitable Trust) should be targeted to support this work through grant awards.