Since the 1980s, Liverpool had faced significant challenges with deprivation and urban decline. The awareness of fuel poverty as a distinct issue in the 1990s led to a greater focus in the UK on how this was manifested among different communities and how it related to other major public agendas such as housing and health. There was an emerging recognition that residents of Liverpool were struggling with covering the costs of domestic energy. The significance of fuel poverty had been observed by many frontline workers in the city, and the issue had begun to appear in important policy documents such as the city’s health plan. National changes such as the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel and the liberalisation of energy markets were identified as factors that could aggravate this situation, but a detailed understanding of the causes, risk factors and impacts affecting those living in the city was lacking.
Key research Question
To carry out a systematic investigation to understand the nature of fuel poverty in Liverpool and to ascertain if the resulting data could inform local and national policy and contribute to the relevant evidence base.
Summary of activity
Data were collected by Merseyside Information Services using a specially constructed questionnaire. Participating households came from deprived and non-deprived areas of the city according to the Department of the Environment 1991 Index of Local Conditions.
The survey devised a measurement framework (the Fuel Poverty Index) to calculate household vulnerability to fuel poverty. This scored households against five criteria: damp/condensation, insufficient warmth, the absence of central heating, a requirement to reduce heating bills and payment arrears to energy suppliers.
In comparison with national levels, fuel poverty rates were significantly higher among the population of Liverpool, with an average of 12.7% of household income spent on energy, rising to 17% among low-income households. This was symptomatic of a higher level of poverty in general in the city, and fuel poverty was more extensive among households experiencing general financial difficulties. The households scoring highest included social housing tenants, end-of-terrace homes, residents with long-term illnesses and/or disabilities, carers, occupants out of work, claiming Income Support and/or with a weekly income of less than £150, lone parents and large families. The Index indicated that lone parents and large families were particularly disadvantaged.
While older people in the survey generally had lower incomes, they had lower fuel expenditure and were less likely to accrue arrears; consequently, they scored lower on the Index, but the report concluded they were still at risk because of higher energy use. The use of prepayment meters was the prevalent option for many of these groups. Dependence on budget schemes and emergency credit facilities was routine, and disconnection was common. Households experiencing fuel poverty were spending more on their energy than those not in such circumstances, despite lower incomes. A robust correlation between poor physical condition of a property and living in fuel poverty was discerned.
The authors did not list any specific recommendations but indicated that the findings would be useful for policy-makers, housing providers, energy suppliers and regulators at local, regional and national levels.