There has been a lot in the media lately about fuel poverty. It seems to be the latest buzzword, something everyone wants to report on from the comfort of their nice, warm studio. It was even mentioned on my local radio station yesterday morning. According to this article in the Guardian, 2.3 million households in England are living in fuel poverty – and a million of those has at least one person in work. But what does the term “fuel poverty” actually mean? What does it look like?
My house does not have central heating; everything runs off electricity. The electricity is on a meter, because I don’t want to get into debt. Being on a meter though, means that when I run out of cash, the lights go out. I watch the numbers on my meter like a hawk, worrying about whether I will have enough cash to top up again before those numbers roll down to zero. This is what “fuel poverty” is to me:
Fuel poverty is being forced to make a choice between eating and heating. I know it sounds cool because it rhymes, but it’s really not. It’s just plain cold. All. The. Time. It’s listening to weather reports with dread, always praying for an unseasonably warm Winter. It’s spending more money on fuel than food.
Fuel poverty is having a panic attack when a house move means you can’t claim the £140 Warm Home Discount from the electricity company. And then, when you finally manage to persuade the company that having moved house in October is not a valid reason to refuse someone eligibility to the scheme, the £140 lasts less than a month any way.
Fuel poverty is timing your washing loads so that you can use the tumble dryer to heat the living room on a cold afternoon when your daughter will be home. It’s visiting a relative on your day off, because you can’t afford to heat the house all day and you don’t want your child to be cold. t’s having your toddler sit down at breakfast, saying “bit cold Mummy,” and suggesting she jump on the trampoline, because you can’t afford to put the heater on until a lot later in the day.
Fuel poverty is three duvets on your bed and your toddler wearing socks over her pyjamas. It’s wearing a hoodie and thick socks to bed and bringing a hot water bottle too.
It’s delaying having your child move into her own bedroom because it would be too cold for her and it’s better for both of you if you share a bed and warmth.
It’s only showering every other day because it’s just too cold in the bathroom and you can’t afford to have the heater on. Plus the pump for the shower is electric. It’s knowing that if you have a shower and use the hot water, you’ll have to switch the immersion heater on in order to do the washing up later – and that costs money.
It’s wearing a scarf indoors, all day. It’s realising it doesn’t matter what you wear on the first three layers you throw on in the mornings, because there will be another two over them for most of the day. It’s always having cold toes, even when you’re wearing socks with a tog rating.
It’s only switching on one of the three lights in an open plan living room and kitchen, squinting to see everything during the Winter afternoons because you can’t afford to have all of them on. It’s waiting until the last possible moment to switch any lights on, and switching them off as early as you possibly can.
It’s keeping the bedroom curtains closed all day in a vain attempt to stop what little heat there is from escaping through the windows. It’s having a second bedroom that’s almost entirely unused because it’s so cold in there and you can’t afford to even consider putting the heater on.
It’s the number of typos I’ve had to correct whilst proof reading this post, because my fingers are too cold to type properly. It’s never feeling warm.
It’s worrying all day, every day about the numbers on the electricity meter. It’s wondering whether you can put off paying this bill or that bill, or whether you can use Boots points to buy nappies this month so that there’s a little extra cash to put on the electricity meter. It’s avoiding checking the meter before you go to bed, because you know the panic it provokes will keep you from sleeping.
Worst of all, it’s feeling like you’re a failure as a parent, because every time your child touches you her hands are ice cold.
This flat is newly refurbished. It has double glazing and the heaters are brand new. The floor is insulated and there are new carpets upstairs. My problems with heating my home are not to do with leaky windows or holes in the roof or anything I’ve had to deal with before. At my old flat, I would deliberately top up the fuel meters more than I needed to throughout the Summer, so that by Winter there was a residual amount to help me through the colder months. We moved house in October though, and you can’t transfer a credit balance from one property to the next – so I had no choice but to start from scratch at the new house, just as the weather started to turn. I’m hoping that if we can scrape our way through this Winter, we can begin to build up a credit balance on our meter so that next Winter is not as tough.
Meanwhile, I’ll be the one wearing seven layers and suggesting my daughter make a blanket den in the living room. Again.
S and I were featured in a piece on Russia Today about fuel poverty; you can watch it here: