In developed countries characterized by temperate climates, a household is regarded as experiencing “fuel poverty” when it cannot afford to maintain a comfortable home temperature within reasonable cost. Fuel poverty is regarded as a social inequality and injustice issue and has become a political and health concern. Living in cold, damp homes can have deleterious effects on respiratory health and other physical ailments; it is linked to excess winter mortality and has implications for mental wellbeing in addition to a variety of social maladies.
Northern Ireland is a UK region with the highest proportion of fuel poor households, where 42% of households spend more than a tenth of their income on energy expenditures. The climate is cool, incomes are relatively lower, and the gas network is underdeveloped, resulting in a reliance on more costly sources of heat such as oil, solid fuel, and electricity. Fuel poverty may be especially concentrated in deprived neighborhoods due to poorer quality housing stock and economic disadvantage.
Northern Ireland also has a unique historical legacy of thirty years of civil unrest and sectarian violence, a period known as “The Troubles,” dating from 1968 until a peace agreement in 1998. Some neighborhoods continue to bear the scars of a troubled past. To revive the environmental conditions and improve the prospects and standard of living in thirty-six of Northern Ireland’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, a major urban regeneration policy was launched in 2003. “Neighbourhood Renewal” involved grassroots identification of pertinent issues in areas earmarked for intervention funding. These objectives were to be addressed over a 7- to 10-year timeframe, led by the local community and facilitated by statutory bodies.
Tackling fuel poverty was a priority for several intervention areas. There are a number of channels by which multi-faceted regeneration of disadvantaged neighborhoods was hoped to influence fuel poverty. Neighbourhood Renewal supported the planning and building of new, energy efficient housing. Community groups advocated government schemes to upgrade the efficiency of existing housing stock through retrofits and promoted awareness of cheaper fuels and local oil-buying clubs. The policy also endeavored to boost the economic fortune and incomes of residents by improving education, skills, training, and employment opportunities. Local advice centers accommodated services that provided guidance on money management, eligibility for state welfare benefits, and debt advice.
Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast evaluated the effect of Neighbourhood Renewal on fuel poverty. The study used data from two longitudinal survey sources (the British Household Panel Survey, replaced by Understanding Society). These recorded household incomes and annual outlays on fuel. An indicator of fuel poverty was devised, identifying those respondents who spend greater than 10% of their annual income on fuel.
Before the introduction of the policy, in 2001, a quarter of survey respondents (24.5%) living in Neighbourhood Renewal areas were fuel poor according to this measure. For respondents in all other areas of Northern Ireland, 15.6% of respondents were fuel poor. The research team compared intervention areas with a number of control groups that did not receive policy assistance, accounting for important characteristics of the respondents and their homes including socio-economics, dwelling, and fuel types.
Over a decade of the policy rollout (2003-2012), fuel poverty was estimated to reduce by 3% in the policy-on areas compared to the rest of Northern Ireland. Compared to a control group of respondents living in similarly deprived areas that did not receive funding, the reduction in fuel poverty was estimated to be 4.7%. The policy was found to benefit some vulnerable groups such as poorer educated respondents, those receiving state benefits, and those retired. While the gains of the policy may be thought of as modest, these were not inconsequential given that the policy operated over a challenging economic period.
Regeneration schemes that are holistic in their approach to social and economic disadvantage may provide a complementary means to tackling fuel poverty where they operate alongside specific fuel poverty policies. Wider benefits may be realized for residents who experience an alleviation in fuel poverty, including improved health, wellbeing and quality of living. More generally, addressing fuel poverty has the potential to save lives, ease pressures on the health system, and can contribute to governmental climate change mitigation goals.
These findings are described in the article entitled, The effect of area based urban regeneration policies on fuel poverty: Evidence from a natural experiment in Northern Ireland, recently published in the journal Energy Policy. This work was conducted by Gretta Mohan, Alberto Longo, and Frank Kee from Queen’s University Belfast.
- The effect of area based urban regeneration policies on fuel poverty: Evidence from a natural experiment in Northern Ireland. Mohan, Gretta; Longo, Alberto; Kee, Frank. In: Energy Policy, Vol. 114, 03.2018, p. 609-618.