Blog December 10, 2021

Understanding fuel poverty as an asset risk

By John Buckland

In 2019, there were an estimated 3.18 million people living in fuel poverty in England alone; 15% of those were thought to be social housing residents. Homes with unfit insulation and sustained underheating can cause long-term issues with assets. A deep understanding of an organisation’s housing stock can help identify where improvements should be made.

In general, housing stock in the UK is amongst the oldest and most fuel inefficient in Europe. This, paired with the rising cost of living are risk factors for residents to fall into fuel poverty and suffer the associated physical and mental health impacts, as well as for housing stock to incur damage and costs. If somebody is in fuel poverty, then they’re unlikely to be able to heat their home properly – and not having properties heated means that they could be falling into disrepair.

This is a financial risk to organisations, with damp and mould needing to be rectified and repairs needing to be undertaken. If households are unable to heat their homes sufficiently, this will remain a persistent problem for housing providers; whilst a household remains in fuel poverty, costly ‘band-aid’ repairs for mould and damp are likely, becoming expensive ‘solutions’ in the long-run.

Social housing providers working with legacy assets, for example 1960s high-rise blocks, are dealing with buildings that were built with very poor insulation. This is a structural issue, which can be hard to address. Infamously, one of the tactics used in recent years to insulate these buildings has been to overclad them, leading to disasters, loss of life and the ongoing cladding scandal.

Addressing net zero

One thing helping organisations drive transformation for these problems in the long-term is the current move towards setting carbon targets, which all social housing organisations are now doing. The public know that home emissions need addressing as well. Activist group, Insulate Britain’s sole demand in their protests is for the UK government to undertake a ‘legally binding national plan’ to ensure all homes are insulated to be low energy by 2030, and by 2025 to fund the insulation of all social housing.

At the present moment, housing providers in general, are taking a ‘fabric-first approach’, which means that if it’s possible to better insulate a property, they will take action. Taking this step decreases the amount of fuel that’s required to heat a property, which should prevent more people going into the catchment of ‘fuel poverty’. Addressing this however, is not necessarily as easy as it sounds – particularly for older properties where it can be a challenge to insulate them to a high standard.

There are many issues around retrofitting for homes in order to insulate them to the required standard. Beyond the ‘fabric-first approach’, there are proposals from the government to encourage households to switch from using gas boilers to heat pumps. Gas boilers in homes are responsible for 1 in 7 tonnes of the UK’s carbon emissions, which is mainly due to poorly insulated homes, rather than faults with the boilers themselves.

The answer is not however, as simple as changing all properties to heat pumps. They are less flexible than boilers and one of the prerequisites for the switch is that homes are properly insulated to start with. In fact, the heat that they deliver to radiators is at a lower temperature than that from gas boilers. This means that they don’t work properly unless insulation is addressed first.

This year, a report from the UK Committee on Climate Change explained that in recent years “minimal progress” had been made in insulating buildings adequately and in moving towards low-carbon heating. At current estimates, the move to low-carbon heating in homes will take around 700 years to achieve. With so many living in fuel poverty, more accelerated strategies need to be adopted.

Case Study: Could the Nordic approach help the UK?

In 2017, Stockholm’s mayor made the claim that “fuel poverty is non-existent in Nordic countries.” The Nordic model includes setting minimum heat standards for homes and legislation to include heating costs in rent. District heating models where municipalities are responsible, rather than households, are also popular.

For example, in Copenhagen, Denmark 98% of heating needs are delivered by an authority-led system following legislation that compelled citizens to sign up to the city’s heat networks. Currently, these systems run by burning biomass but work is being undertaken to switch to fossil-free alternatives, demonstrating that once these networks are installed, they can be adapted to keep up with the latest technologies.

In the UK, some headway is being made. For example, in Wales the government has pledged £150m for social homes to improve insulation, clean energy and carbon reduction. This kind of funding can assist housing providers in achieving their net zero goals and pass on savings to residents in the form of cheaper energy bills. Additionally, in 2021 a ban was announced on new build social homes that use fossil fuels for heating.

How MRI Asset Management can assist organisations in addressing fuel poverty

For housing providers, asset management systems can assist with the diagnosis of fuel poverty. This is because it is not solely about trying to use IoT or meter readings for identifying fuel poverty, instead MRI’s Asset Management system brings together many data points that can be indicators. The solution knows the materials that the property is made from, the current levels of insulation, the current heating system and the EPC rating. This can then data model each home’s theoretical running costs, if not the actual running costs.

From that point, users have the base information to calculate which households could be at risk of fuel poverty. If you know a household’s income, the body of evidence becomes more compelling. Some of our customers may use Tenancy Analytics to assess the income side of the risk of fuel poverty, others can use the data in Asset Management to substantiate that risk. This can give them the opportunity to model questions such as, ‘if the same tenant, was in a different property, would they have a different level of fuel poverty?’

Across the housing sector, providers and partners are rising to the challenge of addressing fuel poverty. From transforming stock to the immediate actions of crisis management for households in need. The Housing Associations Charitable Trust (HACT) have given over £1m worth of vouchers over the past year through their Energy Hardship Fund, which assists households experiencing fuel poverty. We were exceptionally proud to have been able to support this initiative. In the long-term, housing providers have the will to address fuel poverty and the duty to cut carbon emissions in their homes by improving insulation. Comprehensive data management can be a key part of driving these changes in an efficient and cost aware manner.

If you would like to talk further about how technology can be used to support you to address fuel poverty in your homes please get in touch at socialhousing@mrisoftware.com

 

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