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Energy poverty alleviation by social housing providers: A qualitative investigation of targeted interventions in France, England, and the Netherlands

Posted on 18-07-2024

Decisions made by social housing providers (SHPs) profoundly affect their tenants' energy affordability, a group characterised by above-average energy poverty rates. Concentrated deprivation in this tenure has intensified due to policy-driven ‘residualisation’, compelling SHPs to serve almost exclusively low-income and marginalised households. Despite this, research exploring the potential of SHPs to tackle energy poverty through targeted interventions for their most vulnerable tenants remains sparse. The 2021–2022 energy price crisis offers a unique context to investigate this issue, given its substantial impact on household energy affordability. This study delves into insights of social housing professionals through focus groups conducted in France, England, and the Netherlands. It examines their views on the effectiveness of interventions and assesses their feasibility within the respective institutional contexts. We find that SHPs generally favour retrofit prioritisation and behavioural interventions as effective means of supporting at-risk tenants, whereas alterations in rent setting or housing allocation are considered potentially impactful but often undesirable or impracticable. We identify institutional barriers and lack of data as key obstacles to SHPs' adoption of more targeted interventions. To empower SHPs in tackling energy poverty, housing policy reforms must acknowledge and address the significant impact of energy costs within total housing expenses.

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Energy Poverty

Area: Policy and financing

The in-depth study of energy poverty as a social phenomenon commenced in the late 19th century through the works of British social researchers Booth and Rowntree (O’Connor, 2016). This era was characterised by significant social and economic transformation, and these scholars were troubled by the living conditions and welfare of impoverished urban populations, who were residing in congested and unsanitary environments. Throughout the 20th century, poverty in policy contexts became quite narrowly defined as a lack of income. However, it was another social concern in the UK that led to the development of concepts like ‘fuel poverty’ or ‘energy poverty’ a century after Booth and Rowntree.[i] Following the 1973 oil crisis, the Child Poverty Action Group took the initiative to address how increasing energy costs were affecting low-income households in the UK (Johnson & Rowland, 1976). As essentials like heating, electricity, and fuels became necessary for maintaining a decent standard of living in modern British society, this advocacy group pushed for government financial support. Later, Bradshaw and Hutton (1983) introduced a narrower definition of energy poverty: “the inability to afford adequate heat in the home”. Since then, studies on energy poverty have typically excluded motor fuels, as they fall under transport poverty, a related but separate area of study (Mattioli et al., 2017). Energy poverty, as defined by Bouzarovski and Petrova (2015, p. 33), refers to "the inability to secure or afford sufficient domestic energy services that allow for participation in society." Although the precise boundaries of relevant domestic energy usage are still debated, this definition expands beyond mere heating as it encompasses energy used for cooling, which is particularly relevant in warmer climates (Thomson et al., 2019). Moreover, it enables a socially and culturally dependent understanding of what it means to participate in society (Middlemiss et al., 2019). On 13 September 2023, the European Union (2023) officially defined energy poverty as “a household’s lack of access to essential energy services, where such services provide basic levels and decent standards of living and health, including adequate heating, hot water, cooling, lighting, and energy to power appliances, in the relevant national context, existing national social policy and other relevant national policies, caused by a combination of factors, including at least non-affordability, insufficient disposable income, high energy expenditure and poor energy efficiency of homes”. The doctoral thesis and subsequent book by Brenda Boardman, Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth (1991), marked a significant breakthrough in energy poverty research. She emphasised the detrimental impact of energy-inefficient housing on health and quality of life. In the decades that followed, substantial literature confirmed her qualitative findings (Thomson et al., 2017). Notably, studies have demonstrated the adverse effects of living in energy poverty on physical health (Liddell & Morris, 2010), mental health (Liddell & Guiney, 2015), stress levels (Longhurst & Hargreaves, 2019), social isolation (Harrington et al., 2005), and absenteeism (Howden-Chapman et al., 2007). Boardman’s work introduced an indicator that has remained influential to this date, although it was not the first attempt to operationalise the concept of fuel poverty (Isherwood & Hancock, 1979). Her ‘2M’ indicator categorises a household as energy poor if it needs to allocate twice the median share of its budget for energy expenses to heat its home adequately. Boardman calculated this threshold to be 10% at that time. Due to its simplicity and ease of comprehension, many governments directly adopted this 10% threshold without considering specific contextual circumstances. Since the early nineties, numerous attempts have been made to develop alternative indicators. Highly influential ones include ‘Low Income High Cost’ (LIHC) by John Hills (2012), ‘Low Income Low Energy Efficiency’ (LILEE) that subsequently became the official British indicator (BEIS, 2022), and a 'hidden' energy poverty indicator by (Meyer et al., 2018). Critiques of these indicators focus, amongst other things, on their simplicity and perceived 'technocratic' approach (Croon et al., 2023; Middlemiss, 2017). This marked the beginning of significant government commitment, initially in the UK and later in other countries to address energy poverty. Although certain forms of cold weather payments had already been introduced by the UK's Conservative administrations, it was under the successive governments of Blair and Brown, following the publication of Boardman's work, that programmes such as the Winter Fuel Payment and Warm Home Discount were implemented (Koh et al., 2012). The UK examples highlight bipartisan support for addressing energy poverty, with both the Conservatives and Labour backing these efforts. This policy objective has also gained momentum in various legislative contexts, leading the EU to incorporate energy poverty alleviation as a fundamental pillar of the European Green Deal and a specific goal of its landmark Social Climate Fund (European Commission, 2021). Over the last three decades, public interest in energy poverty as a 'wicked' problem has surged, particularly during the recent energy crisis. This crisis began in 2021 when energy markets tightened due to a post-pandemic economic rebound, and it worsened dramatically after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 (IEA, 2023). Extensive research on the impact of this price surge on energy poverty levels has been carried out throughout Europe and globally (Guan et al., 2023; Simshauser, 2023). Consequently, energy poverty has become a significant focal point in discussions related to the 'just transition,' especially within the realm of energy justice, as it serves as a valuable concept for targeting policies towards a specific vulnerable group in this context (Carrosio & De Vidovich, 2023).     [i] ‘Fuel poverty' and 'energy poverty' are used interchangeably, with the former being more common in the UK and the latter in mainland Europe (Bouzarovski & Petrova, 2015). Previously, scholars in the UK used 'energy poverty' to denote a lack of access to energy and 'fuel poverty' when affordability was the concern (Li et al., 2014). However, this distinction is no longer maintained.

Created on 17-10-2023

Author: T.Croon (ESR11)



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