“Back in 1985 our council housing was in crisis,” says David Pickles, the council’s sustainability manager. “Fifty percent of houses in Newark had mould and condensation. Doctors were reporting that people had health problems and tenants’ groups were threatening the council with litigation.”
In a dramatic move, the council suspended the updating of tenants’ kitchens and bathrooms and invested instead in making improvements to houses’ central heating and energy efficiency.
“We treat fuel poverty as a stock condition problem, not a social problem,” explains Mr Pickles. “Our strategy has been to ‘fuel poverty proof’ the housing stock to focus on which houses are not capable of delivering affordable warmth.”
The effects of the change in policy were dramatic, says Mr Pickles. In 1985, less than five percent of council houses provided affordable warmth to vulnerable households. Now the figure is nearer 80% and if it were not for recent energy price increases it would be nearer 100%.
An annual survey sent to 10% of households gives the council a indication of who they should target and where to focus its help. During the last three years, for example, there has been a special programme for the elderly, in a joint project part-funded by Nottinghamshire CC .
“It has been easy making improvements to our own housing stock,” says Mr Pickles. “But we have had to cajole private occupiers to spend their own money or to make use of grants. And, despite holding seminars and trying to persuade them, private landlords have been hard to convince. They say there is no business case for energy-efficiency improvements, especially for low-income tenants, and don’t want to have to maintain central heating.”
Another frustration for the council is that it is unable to draw on other organisations’ data for targeting vulnerable households. The utility companies don’t share details of the households they provide support to, says Mr Pickles, and nor does central government, which collects details on Home Energy Certificates.
“A few years ago I would have been pretty cocky about our performance,” says Mr Pickles. “But we’re in a different world now. With ever-increasing energy prices we are having to scratch our heads as to how to deliver on fuel poverty.”
Newark & Sherwood DC David Pickles, sustainable energy manager.
Tel: 01636 655 598 or email: David.Pickles@nsdc.info