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Fuel Poverty Perspectives: “You Just Have to Get By” – Coping with Low Incomes and Cold Homes

Centre for Sustainable Energy
University of Bristol Personal Finance Research Centre
Date: 2010


Determining whether households are fuel poor has often been reduced to a quantitative exercise based on income calculations. While some form of benchmark is undoubtedly necessary in order to target activity effectively, the actual experience of living in cold homes requires more recognition in the debate. Recognising people’s strategies for using energy and keeping warm and understanding their own opinions and knowledge of the choices open to them are important because this information is vital in fully maximising the potential of scheme design. 

Key research Question

The research aimed to build a detailed picture of the various coping strategies used by low-income and/or fuel poor households to manage their energy use, considering not just their practical choices but also the psychological drivers and impacts. It also sought to establish evidence of a link between low income and fuel poverty and to assess to what extent current energy markets can offer affordable warmth. 

Summary of activity

Data were generated using a face-to-face survey of 699 low‐income households using 20 closed‐response questions inserted into the NatCen Omnibus Survey. In addition, in-depth semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with a sample of 50 households. 


The data were interpreted through a basic ‘theoretical model of coping’, which deployed three main categories: ‘material and personal circumstances’, ‘individual attitudes and values’ and ‘personal resourcefulness and coping skills’. The resulting analysis identified that: 

  • The decisions that low‐income households make about their heating and warmth must be seen not in isolation but within the wider context of living on a restricted budget; however, there are many strategies, and choices change in response to changing circumstances. This includes a preference for prepayment meters because of the perception that they offer households control over their spending. 

  • Maintaining dignity and self-esteem were the crucial psychological drivers behind choices. 

  • While low-income households are often shrewd consumers in other areas, this was not the case in the energy market, mainly because of a lack of trust in providers and the complexity of the offers available. 


  • Programmes designed to deliver improved thermal efficiency are essential for low-income households but must take account of their complex needs and motives. Where practical devices are installed, user-friendly controls and adequate information are key, as is the flexibility to move between central heating and other lower-cost options. 

  • The level of absolute income must be used as the basis for calculating fuel poverty, as opposed to the proportion of income spent to maintain adequate warmth. 

  • Tackling income poverty must be seen as a critical element of eradicating fuel poverty. Therefore, anti-poverty strategies are intrinsic to efforts to reduce fuel poverty. 

Other themes



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