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Jo Wills
Fuel poverty – do we need to define it to solve it?
Blog, Fuel Poverty

Community Energy Network launched a campaign before Christmas to raise awareness of fuel poverty in New Zealand.

We know there is much known about this issue academically and we know it’s being reluctantly discussed politically – but Kiwis aren’t talking about it because being cold and sick during winter is considered normal and in many cases expected.  We want our campaign to change peoples expectations – it’s a big ask but we think the time is right.

We’ve just released our second Fuel Poverty Campaign media release, this time going out to all media as well as supportive and complementary organisations.  I have received a good amount of positive response from organisations and the media alike, however there have been a few other responses which I am still struggling to get my head around and I want to know what practitioners think on this important issue.

The question is…if we know the conditions that cause fuel poverty and we know the negative social impacts those conditions can result in (health and financial), not to mention environmental – do we need to spend time discussing and debating a definition in order to achieve the purpose of the campaign?   Should a definition be our focus over and above taking action against some of the internationally recognised conditions (i.e. poor quality housing)?   NZ doesn’t have a fuel poverty definition, but we have a fuel poverty problem – so what is the best approach?  Increase Kiwis awareness and help them to see its an unacceptable way to live so they start asking for something better (which influences political voting), or have a square box definition to squeeze people in so we can throw plasters over the problem (i.e. sore throat clinics in schools)?

As practitioners, you are coming into contact with people affected by or most at risk of fuel poverty every day, as well as working with other organisations who also recgonise the problem.  What are your thoughts on the need to define the issue before we can move forward?   And if you think there is already a relevant NZ definition – what is it?   One of CEN’s outcomes for this campaign is to see Minimum Energy Performance Standards established for all properties in NZ but with an initial focus on rental properties, is this the right approach?

I’m really keen for comment or feedback (especially on the questions above). If you want to work with us on the issue please get in touch too.

  1. Jo, I am secretly a bit of a policy wonk and I do think we need a definition appropriate to NZ.
    However, I don’t think that should be a reason not to take action on a whole range of things immediately. We have plenty of evidence already – and certainly enough to justify action. We know the problems with NZ houses and we know people are struggling to afford to be warm and stay well. We have a whole lot of tools in our basket to deal with those things now and we can and should take action.

    A definition is useful to understand the scale of the problem, to target public resources (not just in the Energy Vote but across other areas) and to measure progress. Getting the definition right shouldn’t be a reason to do nothing in the mean time.

    So, basically, yes AND no!

  2. I agree with sally that a definition is a really useful tool and yes we do need to have one. However, I don’t think we need to have a long winded process to find a definition which everybody agrees with. In fact a definition which is a bit controversial might excite some debate and help raise awareness of the issue. We know fuel poverty is a big problem in New Zealand. If we are going to “put a box around it” then lets make it a big box to squeeze lots of people inside to demonstrate the extent of the problem. The UK defintion of 10% of household income may not be directly transferable to NZ. But reading Ian McChesney’s paper it seems this figure is simply based on an assumption that twice the average proportion 5% of household income seemed like a good number. Perhaps we could use the same formula here? I think someone just needs to be brave enough to throw a New Zealand specific definition out there. Until we have that box we don’t have something that can be measured.

  3. I was wondering how far along the track you have got with the proposed minimum performance standard for rental housing? I understand that there may be a draft checklist available. I have been asked to do a talk to landlords at the mini Victory Ecofest to be held in May. The organiser is planning to get one of our good landlords along to speak about the advantages of providing warm dry energy efficient rental properties. They want me to also speak on this subject. A discussion on the proposed MPS for rentals could be a good opportunity to get some info out there, and some feedback. Is there any info that I could use to help promote the MPS?

  4. Hi Richard, Because the site isn’t sending notifications out properly at present (hopefully fixed soon!) I’ll flick an email on to Jo and anyone else who might be able to advise you on this. All the best

  5. Thanks for the responses, I am defintely not anti a definition, but I would be if it meant a lack of one for NZ (agreeable by all) equated to NO action being taken to address the known issues causing fuel poverty. Great discussion guys, thank you. Richard here is a document developed by Beacon Pathway to prompt discussion around MEPS, feel free to use it as a starting point for your talk.


    Online survey results are coming in fast, again, there is nothing in there we don’t already know, so what quantity of the same information telling us people are sick (over 80% of respondants indicating someone in their household has asthma), people can’t afford to heat their home (over 40% of respondants saying they opt to use LESS heating over winter instead of switching heating sources) do we need before the necessary steps are taken to improve NZ housing standards.

    Recent Herald article: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10877288 Insulation subsidy cutback predicted. We know insulation is only part of the problem anyway, and if you insulate a draughty, leaking home with no/inadequate curtains and poor ventilation, it’s a step in the right direction, but not enough.

  6. In my view the definition is a lot lower down the scale of need than fixing the problem. However if we want political debate and rules to help start/help create the solution we will need the definition. Otherwise the argument could be overtaken with the debate on the definition itself and the REAL figure of who is in or out of the fuel poverty box. Surely it can’t be that hard to define as the risk assessors within banks know exactly what they will deal with in relation to household income and ability to repay a mortgage. Is it not a similar calculation of cost of energy versus household income/debt to income ratio that somewhere bewteen, as an example, 10-15% becomes untenable.

  7. I realy think we need a clear and simple definition to send this message out , otherwise how can we argue it to the politicions. If it is not defined it puts any of us trying to fight it in a comprimised postion as we will be distracted by trying to define it a fresh in each conversation. And if we don’t have a goal , how do we know when we’ve got someone out of fuel poverty. I also agree with Adam that the definition ” box ” needs to be big. My definition would be anyone who has concerns about the cost of heating. We should not fear winter either from a cost point of view or thermal comfort point of view. We should as a nation be looking forward to all the fun that winter brings, not the misery.

  8. Ok then, heres a task for the Hub members…what’s our clear and simple definition? Why don’t we – the ones who face the social impacts of fuel poverty on a daily basis – give it a go? I’m not suggesting for a second those in academia don’t know what they are talking about, but surely we do? And why should we wait for one to come out and for it be too restrictive. My argument has always been that I don’t believe in waiting for the definition before taking action, so why don’t we push forward with both…

  9. Some pretty disturbing stats in here: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU1305/S00893/reaching-for-the-rug-this-winter-youre-not-alone.htm. Especially the gender inequality! Never thought of Fuel Poverty in those terms before. Jo, it would be great if you could give us all an update of the work you’ve been doing around FP. I feel like there’s a lot going on in disparate places, or I might just be feeling a bit out of the loop at the mo as have had my head in other things… Actually the invitation is open to anyone to provide an update on FP work. Especially as the snow hits in May!

  10. Yes, there is a lot going on, and surprisingly a good portion of it is coming out of Govt. Here is a run down of what I know is happening and how CEN fits in. Having said that, the following Govt initiatives are not necessarily admitting fuel poverty exists in NZ, just a need to improve housing:

    – $21.3 million to curb rheumatic fever in South AK, with a healthy homes referral and advice service included.
    * CEN is involved in this by working with MoH and EECA in the establishment of a South AK Curtain Bank. * We would also like to be involved with regards to performing the home assessments, this is a work in progress (and see below re Home Performance Advisors).

    – $100 million for 46,000 homes to be insulated, targeting those on low income and living in rental properties, EECA, Warm Up NZ: Healthy Homes
    * CEN members are naturally submitting RFP’s for this, and CEN is working on the potential of national 3rd party funding (very early days yet).

    – MBIE is managing a Rental Housing Standards Forum to support the development of a WoF for rental properties.
    * CEN is talking to MBIE about a place on the forum to ensure minimum energy performance standards are included and included to a high standard.

    CEN is still running the ‘How was last winter for you’ surveys online and as hard copies. Click on the link for the website http://www.warmerwinters.org.nz/action.html to access the survey. We are not expecting to uncover any new information with the survey, as the academic research (as per the link posted by Sally) is already very clear – Fuel Poverty exists in NZ. What we intend to do with the survey, is communicate the message from the perspective of those at risk or suffering from fuel poverty. We are receiving the same time of results from our survey as the academic studies currently being reported, but we intend to make the results more about the people,sharing their first hand experiences and making sure that message gets to the right people who are in positions to influence decisions at both ends; policy and voting (i.e. make MEPS an 2014 election issue).

    We will be sharing the results of our survey at the CEN hosted conference 20th September, in Wellington at Te Papa. This conference will put forward the need for minimum energy performance standards for all NZ houses, with specific focus on rental properties.

    CEN is also developing a national certification for Home Peformance Advisors, this is to ensure consistent, whole of house, independent, best performance advice is given during a home assessment. Currently many sales based assessments are taking place often resulting in incorrect advice based on product being provided, which can translate into the household being no further ahead in their attempt to achieve a warm, dry, healthy and more affordable home. I will submit another more detailed post about this initiative in a few moments.

    For more reading about fuel poverty, check out two articles from Ian McChesney and Philippa Howden-Chapman from Policy Quarerly, May issue. Click on the link http://www.communityenergy.org.nz/2-xs-housingfuel-poverty-articles-from-policy-quarterly/

    I’m still in the ‘we don’t need to define it to take action’ camp but then I am neither an academic nor a scientist, just a doer.

    So lots happening, CEN is moving towards a position of leadership through action!

  11. Nice one Jo. Thanks for the update!

  12. Hi Jo et al. I’ve just joined the group and thought I’d add a few thoughts. When I did my Vic Uni research on fuel poverty last year I thought a lot about the definitional issue, and in particular the problems with the UK definition where fuel poverty was defined by energy expenditure being 10% or more of income. Apart from the fact that this definition did not necessarily accurately portray energy deprivation, it was almost impossible to use the definition as a pragmatic tool by frontline agencies and their personnel. In other words there was a disconnect between describing the problem at the high level (which was done by surveys, modelling and use of high level stats), and translating that to someone like an energy adviser trying to use the definition to work out whether a household was in fuel poverty. The information required, and calculations were almost impossible to do accurately and quickly at the household level. It is one of the reasons why the targeting of UK fuel poverty assistance was so poor.

    The UK Government is about to change the definition – I think it will better portray fuel poverty but I suspect the ‘disconnect’ will remain. Another issue with a prescriptive definition is what can be called the ‘boundary’ problem – if a household sits just under the threshold for fuel poverty in reality they are no less in need than a household just over the threshold.

    Hence I am not a great fan of a prescriptive definition. In my discussions about fuel poverty I am describing it simply as: “The inability of a household to afford a sufficient level of energy services in the home”. Not very dramatic, but lends itself to a reasonably consistent interpretation at both the high level, and on the frontline, while retaining a bit of flexibility (if that’s not too inconsistent!). This description should be given effect by using some agreed criteria and indicators (e.g. household unable to heat main rooms properly, unable to pay electricity bills on time etc). I’d be fairly optimistic that a widely agreed set of criteria/indicators could be assembled quite quickly.

  13. Thanks Ian, I actually use your description regularly, dramatic or not, it does the trick and I see the penny drop for many people who have never heard the description before. I would like to talk to you in more detail about the widely agreed set of criteria, and will give you a call asap.

    Thanks for your post!

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