The warning signs that someone’s having problems paying for fuel are obvious once you know them.
An electric heater plugged in when the house has central heating. A kettle and bowl in the bathroom. And an unwillingness from the resident to let our engineers in for a gas safety check – because they haven’t fed the meter and can’t afford the fuel needed to run the system checks. They’re embarrassed, or afraid that they might be putting their tenancy at risk.
In fact, more seriously, they could be putting their lives – and the lives of their loved ones – at risk by not allowing our engineers to check their gas appliances and systems.
When people have to make choices about which bill they’re going to pay first, debt can get out of control very quickly. And once that’s happened, and the standing charge reaches unmanageable levels, our residents can sometimes feel uncertain how to find a way out.
But this is where Sovereign can offer support against the reality of fuel poverty, which is caused by a convergence of three factors:
- low income, which is often linked to absolute poverty
- high fuel prices, including the use of relatively expensive fuel sources such as electricity in the UK, aggravated by higher tariffs for low-volume energy users
- poor energy efficiency of a home, e.g. through low levels of insulation and old or inefficient heating systems
£10 a week homes
Firstly, we can help our residents to manage their fuel payments if they have got out of hand, as our housing officers can help to contact energy suppliers and create repayment plans to get people back on track.
Secondly, we can offer support by bringing our residents’ fuel costs down long term. Our 2018-2022 strategic plan states that we will create homes that can be run on just £10 a week. That’s a move that will not only support our customers, but help the environment too. We’re doing this via the work of property services experts like Contracts Manager, Robert Hicks, who is looking ahead with gas safety and energy efficiency, as we work to better insulate with environmentally friendly products such as hemp and lime, replace inefficient boilers with newer technology and try out alternative methods of heating, such as air source heat pumps.
In the last year alone, we replaced 411 boilers and installed 212 gas fired central heating systems. We’re also trying to secure funding from the Warm Homes Fund to support a £1.4m initiative, as we replace old boilers and electric storage heaters. This also meets Government targets for clean growth and industrial strategies.
Fuel poverty is obviously not good for residents’ physical or mental health, but can, as mentioned, also represent a real safety risk. Portable electric heaters – which are wrongly perceived to be cheaper – are a much higher fire risk than gas central heating. And if residents don’t let us in to conduct annual checks, this could mean that faults with heating systems remain undetected. At high levels, a carbon monoxide leak can kill in just minutes.
Thankfully, most residents are happy and able to let us into their homes to conduct these essential appointments, and I’m proud to say that we ultimately achieved 100% compliance with our gas safety checks in 2017-2018. From the property team, which plans in the checks with plenty of time to spare, to the engineers who carry out the combined inspections of gas appliances, carbon monoxide monitors and fire alarms, to the housing officers who help gain access in those trickier situations, we’ve all worked together to make this happen.
This year, we’ve also introduced the Landlords Authorised Person – who helps us to ensure that we – and our contractors – are maintaining our homes to the best possible standards. Ending fuel poverty and meeting environmental targets is an ongoing challenge, but one that I’m confident we are tackling head on.