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Too Big to Be Warm – Fuel Poverty and Under-occupation in Private Homes

National Right to Fuel Campaign
Date: 2012


The UK Fuel Poverty Strategy (2001) indicated that households experiencing the most severe fuel poverty were more likely to be found in larger properties and that older people were particularly at risk. Other research concluded that under-occupation was more prevalent in the private sector, especially among owner-occupiers, but that most householders were satisfied with their current space and did not intend to downsize.  

Key research Question

The researchers investigated whether an identifiable relationship could be detected between under-occupation in private sector domestic properties and fuel poverty and, if so, whether this could be quantified. In addition, they tested a range of practical measures to see if they offered opportunities to reduce or eliminate fuel poverty in such households.  

Summary of activity

The research involved a literature review focusing on housing, the health impacts of fuel poverty and under-occupation, as well as resources produced by organisations providing practical advice around care support such as Age Concern and Help the Aged. Data were collected via semi-structured interviews with professionals working in the housing, health, advice and care sectors. In addition, a workshop was held with representatives of housing, advice and care bodies, Government departments and organisations working on fuel poverty to consider draft findings and recommendations.  

Data relating to private sector households taken from the 1996 English House Condition Survey (EHCS) and the parallel 1996 EHCS Energy Report were also analysed. These fed into technical experiments carried out in six three- and four-bedroom properties, which modelled the impact of different installations on levels of warmth and energy costs. 


The EHCS data suggest that approximately a third of fuel poor households were under-occupying by two or more bedrooms and two-thirds by one or more. Those most likely to be under-occupying were single householders over 60, couples over 60 or single adults under 60. However, the above proportions were lower than the rates of under-occupancy recorded across all households. As a result, the authors conclude that fuel poverty is more strongly related to living in households at standard levels of occupation or overcrowded homes than to living in under-occupied homes. Under-occupancy can present health risks when it leads to partial heating, but behaviour change could address this. 

Interview data indicated that partial heating is inefficient and saves very little. Better heating controls are an option worth exploring, but only if householders receive adequate advice on how to use them effectively. The shortage of smaller properties in all housing sectors limits the ability of those in larger homes to move even if they wish to; moreover, affordable warmth is rarely the main driver for relocation.  

Technical trials found that a combination of improved insulation, restricted internal airflows and heating only part of a house can deliver notable savings on energy bills, but not by enough to remove the majority of single low-income under-occupiers from fuel poverty. To achieve this would necessitate additional measures. The cost of implementation remains a challenge, however. 


The study offered both immediate and longer-term recommendations. These included: 

  • The criteria for Warm Front Grants should be amended to include measures that address under-occupied properties, and the scheme should be coordinated more effectively with other funding sources. The budgets of Home Improvement Agencies should be increased, and they should be tasked with leading the agenda to tackle fuel poverty and disrepair in private housing, in partnership with local authorities and other stakeholders. 

  • A new programme should be developed that provides practical support and better housing advice for older people around energy efficiency, home improvements and housing options. 

  • The planning system should reflect the housing, health and care needs of older people, and a scheme should be developed to advise planners and housing providers (both private sector and Registered Social Landlords) about how this can be done. 

  • The definition of under-occupancy needs revisiting to consider how it can best be applied in the context of policy regarding the efficient use of housing resources or health and social care resources. 

  • More research is needed to understand the range of factors connecting under-occupancy and fuel poverty in private housing. This should include qualitative studies with homeowners and an increased focus on age differences, under-occupation in the private rented sector and the health impacts and provision of alternative housing arrangements (e.g. retirement properties). 

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