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Fuel Poverty in Manchester Gorton

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Darren Henry.)

No one can deny that we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Many of our constituents will be looking in despair at their energy bills. Some of them will, maybe for the first time, be worrying about how to make ends meet, and having to make a decision that it is unlikely any of us in this House will have to make—choosing between heating and eating.

A few weeks ago, one constituent in Abbey Hey told me:

“I have no idea how I will manage these next few months. I will only put on the heating in one room if the temperature goes below zero. I only heat my kettle twice per day and cook hot food only three times per week to save electricity.”

It is outrageous and shameful that here, in one of the richest countries in the world, anyone is forced to limit the number of times they can cook per week because they cannot afford the energy used, but this is not unusual.

Staff at Fallowfield & Withington food bank tell me people are requesting meals and ingredients that cook fast as they cannot afford to keep their cooker on for more than a few minutes. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to Fallowfield & Withington food bank and all the other food banks working in my constituency for all their incredible work to support my constituents. I will be following closely their new collaboration with the green doctors to support residents saving on energy bills by becoming more energy efficient.

Another constituent, a lone parent with three children in Fallowfield who is working two jobs to make ends meet, wrote to me desperate for help. She told me she has no idea how she and her children can make it through the winter warm and fed. Numerous churches, schools and community centres have written to me expressing the impact of energy bills that are four to five times higher than they were last winter. Many of these places—including Manley Park Methodist church, Longsight Makki Masjid mosque and the Levenshulme Inspire centre, as well as our fantastic Manchester City Council libraries—want to remain open as warm hubs for those who cannot afford heating at home, but growing energy bills alongside inflation make this so much harder for these organisations. I am grateful to these places for remaining open for those most vulnerable in our society, and I am grateful for our food banks, their staff and volunteers.

I am grateful to my constituency neighbour for giving way, and I would just like to echo his thanks for the work of Fallowfield & Withington food bank, which does a fantastic job in my constituency as well. We obviously need to tackle energy prices and bills now, but does he agree with me that the long-term strategy needs to be a massive programme of retrofitting houses to make them insulated for the future, which will not only reduce bills for the future, but tackle the climate crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree with him, and I will be touching on that subject as well.

No one should ever be put in such a situation. The cost of living crisis makes this debate feel timely, but it would be wrong to say that fuel poverty is new. The most recent available official statistics are from 2020, before the current cost of living crisis. They indicate that 10,364 households in my constituency were in fuel poverty—that is 24%—which was the sixth highest proportion in England and Wales, and the highest in the north-west. In some parts of my constituency, notably Fallowfield, Rusholme and Longsight, the picture is even bleaker, with nearly 40% of households affected in some areas.

I am not sure whether levelling up is still Government policy, but the statistics show significant regional inequality. The south-east has just under half the proportion of houses in poverty than the north-west—I note that the Surrey constituency of this week’s Chancellor has only 7% of households in fuel poverty, which is less than a third of the number in my constituency. There is also a racial disparity: the proportion of ethnic minority households in fuel poverty is 1.5 times that of their counterparts who identify as white. Purely anecdotally, it is notable that cities and towns such as Manchester, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Birmingham, which have high proportions of people of south Asian heritage, are disproportionately represented in the top 50% of households in fuel poverty.

It is important to recognise that fuel poverty is more than being chilly. It is not a case of just putting on another jumper, and it has been shown that cold homes worsen respiratory conditions, cardiovascular disease, poor mental health and dementia. A review by the Institute of Health Equity led by Sir Michael Marmot indicated that diseases linked to cold and damp cost the national health service £6.9 million a day. Fuel poverty has a disproportionate impact on children. In addition to impacting on their health, according to a report from the Childhood Trust fuel poverty has a number of additional indirect impacts, such as lower rates of educational attainment, and it places strain on young people’s mental health.

Although low pay, insufficient welfare support or unemployment are factors in fuel poverty, as are global energy prices, there are structural reasons why people from less affluent neighbourhoods are more at risk of falling into fuel poverty. For example, many of my constituents, who are generally in private rented accommodation, are forced to use prepayment meters for electricity and gas. Households with prepayment meters pay what Fair By Design calls a “poverty premium”. They are forced to pay suppliers’ standard rates without being able to enter fixed-rate contracts, and unlike many others, they were immediately affected by hikes in retail energy prices. They are subject to higher standing charges that apply even if no energy is used, and they are unable to access discounts for direct debit payments or paperless billing. That leads to households simply cutting themselves off. If customers with traditional meters do not pay their bill, their energy company might be able to offer them support. If those on a prepayment meter do not have enough money, they simply do not top up, yet they still rack up more debt because of the standing charges. All that adds up, and we know that people with prepayment electricity meters are three times more likely to be in fuel poverty than those with a traditional meter.

In my constituency, Edwardian terraces are the most common form of housing. Now more than a century old, they were built long before modern energy efficient building techniques and insulation. Many residents cannot afford to improve the energy efficiency of their home, or they live in privately rented accommodation and are therefore at the mercy of a landlord. To address fuel poverty we must acknowledge the need for retrofitting—my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) made that point earlier. Retrofitting would address not only cold homes but the UK’s carbon emissions, because 23% of all emissions come from home heating and powering. The least energy efficient houses pay over £900 per year more on their bills.

As the Minister will know, the Government previously ran the green homes grant voucher scheme which—let us face it—was a failure. It completed work on only 7% of the projected targets, and only 224 energy efficiency measures were installed in my constituency.

The average person cannot do this on their own. The estimated cost of a full-property retrofit is £25,000 to £30,000, which would be impossible for most people to pay, let alone those struggling to pay their energy bills. That is why the Government must create a scheme to get homes insulated and retrofitted. It must be a scheme that works, creates green jobs and helps working-class families to heat their homes.

We should acknowledge the work by organisations such as People Powered Retrofit which are helping to tackle the skills gap across the construction sector by offering “retrofit fundamental” courses. Such courses provide the background knowledge needed to begin green construction.

There are great local projects happening in Manchester and across the country. I draw the House’s attention to the work of the Carbon Co-op and its Levenshulme area-based retrofit scheme. The scheme shows the savings from and benefits of a street-by-street approach to home retrofits and how retrofit can be made a possibility for homeowners who may never have had the opportunity otherwise.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. May I add to his comments the example of the Arrowfield Road estate in Chorlton in my constituency, where Southway Housing is, alongside a new heat pumps programme, retrofitting the houses on the estate? That will make a significant difference to the bills and warmth for those houses.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. The more of those schemes, the better.

As we all know, net zero by 2050 is a guideline, but we do not have until 2050 to make serious changes to our emissions. We are already seeing the detrimental effects of climate change. Just recently, we saw devastating floods in Pakistan, where an area the size of the UK was under water and overnight 33 million people became refugees in their own country. Scientists have said that the impact was worse due to climate change. That is why we must treat energy issues as environmental issues. If the whole of the UK was powered by renewables, solar would use only 2.1% of land, which is roughly the same amount currently used by golf courses. Some might say that would be a good swap.

Fuel poverty is an issue of dignity. Households deserve to eat and feel warm this winter and every winter. No one should be made to spend hours on a bus to stay warm or skip meals because they cannot afford the energy that they would use, and no child should go to bed cold.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing this important debate. His wider engagement on the matter clearly demonstrates his commitment to his constituents in Gorton, to Manchester and to those households facing financial challenge more widely across the UK. I thank him for that. I understand the challenges that people face when they are severely cold in their own homes. I remember how, when I was a student—I am not trying to create a comparison—and our heating had gone, I had to sleep at night with jeans and tracksuit bottoms on just to try to keep warm. This is a very real issue for people, and at the heart of all of this we must remember the individuals facing these challenges. I was pleased to see his humanity come through in his speech. I welcome our engagement on the debate, because this is truly an important matter.

I also thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for his contribution. I remember fondly our time co-chairing the all-party parliamentary group on mental health. I know of his passion for people and, in particular, as was alluded to, the mental health impact of fuel poverty, especially as we hit the cold of the winter months.

I assure the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton that fuel poverty remains a key concern for the Government. Recent increases in energy prices and the cost of living are having a significant impact on all households, but we know that many low-income households were already struggling. I assure him that the Government are taking the situation very seriously and have already taken action to support many of those in greatest need.

I thank everyone who has spoken for sharing their experience today. For all the reasons discussed, the Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty and supporting households in both the short and long term. This winter we are focusing on how best to help those struggling to keep their homes warm against the backdrop of high energy bills and cost of living pressures. That is why the Government are providing direct support to households. The energy price guarantee and the energy bill relief scheme are supporting millions of households and businesses with rising energy costs, and the Chancellor made clear they will continue to do so until April next year.

Those recent announcements are in addition to the wider support to help households with the impacts of unprecedented global gas price rises set out earlier in the year. Most households will be impacted in some way by high energy prices. That is why the Government are providing support through the energy bill support scheme, which provides a £400 discount for around 29 million households. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that that will no doubt help many of his constituents and reassure them.

However, we recognise that not all households will be impacted equally and that we need to ensure targeted support is available to those who need it most. That is why, in May, the Government announced a support package to combat the increased cost of living. This support is targeted particularly at those with the greatest need, providing 8 million of the most vulnerable households with up to £1,200 of support in instalments across the year. That includes support for those on means-tested benefits, older households who are more vulnerable to the cold, and households requiring disability support who may have higher energy costs as a result. Further help is available for low-income and more vulnerable households through established schemes such as the winter fuel payment, the cold weather payment and the warm home discount. The warm home discount has been extended to 2025-26 and expanded to support 750,000 more households, while increasing rebates to £150. We have also reformed the scheme in England and Wales to provide more rebates automatically and to better target households in fuel poverty.

As well as immediate support to help households stay warm this winter, improving the energy efficiency of homes —this was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman in his excellent speech and in interventions—remains the best long-term solution to reducing energy bills and, therefore, tackling fuel poverty in a more sustainable and long-term way. Energy efficiency improvements can help make it cheaper and easier to heat a home, enabling warmer, safer homes with reduced carbon emissions. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the floods in Pakistan. They had a dramatic impact on many people in my constituency of Watford, where there was a fundraiser for the many friends and family members who were impacted by the floods. Climate change is a huge issue for us all and the Government are committed to tackling it.

The energy company obligation is delivering measures across Great Britain. ECO4, the current iteration of the scheme, which runs until 2026, has an increased value of £1 billion per year. In Gorton, up to March 2022, over 10,700 households had been in receipt of ECO measures. I believe that that is in the upper scale of communities across the UK who have received them. That help is ensuring long-lasting, sustained improvements are available for those households.

We have also recently announced energy efficiency support through ECO Plus, which will help hundreds of thousands of households reduce their energy bills. ECO Plus will be worth £1 billion and deliver an average household saving of around £280 per year, with at least half of the support directly targeted at the most vulnerable, which is where we are really making sure that we are supporting as best we can. The local authority delivery scheme is prioritising homes with some of the lowest energy efficiency ratings. More than 200 local authorities took part in phase 1 of the scheme and participation increased further through phase 2. The first phase of LAD led to 560 homes being upgraded in Greater Manchester and more than 630 homes have been upgraded in phase 2.

The social housing decarbonisation fund will upgrade a significant amount of social housing stock to an energy performance certification rating of C. The total sum committed for that fund and associated demonstrator is more than £1 billion. Manchester City Council received around £3 million in grant funding to upgrade around 90 homes under the SHDF demonstrator, and Greater Manchester Combined Authority received around £10.5 million in grant funding in SHDF wave 1 to upgrade 1,286 homes. The engagement of local authorities, energy companies, industry and the local community and support sector has been pivotal in delivering those schemes and will remain essential. I thank everyone for their continued commitment.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, in particular, for raising this issue. This is such an important debate, but hopefully, when his constituents hear about it—he will no doubt share the video or the Hansard entrythey will note the number of schemes available to them, which will help to reassure them about the support that is available. We are trying to ensure that, at the heart of Government, we provide support to those who are struggling with their energy bills and energy costs, and particularly to those who are in fuel poverty, which is a key part of this. I also reassure them that, although there are challenges, and I appreciate the concerns that they may have—we mentioned mental health earlier—help is out there. I am sure that if his constituents write to him, they will get guidance on where to find that support. Finally, I thank him and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington for their excellent points and for raising this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.