The last two winters have been the coldest that the UK has seen for several years and have coincided with a general hike in prices for oil, coal and gas for domestic heating. This has meant that rather than conserving energy for environmental reasons, some people have been forced to go without necessary heating, just to be able to avoid financial problems.
This has been particularly hard on older people, who live alone and who are managing on a very tight budget. Even with the government’s heating allowance, elderly people worry about the amount of money they need to heat their home. On average, the cold weather claims the lives of around 36 700 people in the UK every year, but the figures from the last two years are expected to show an increase.
Rising Energy Costs
All of the major UK companies who supply oil, gas and electricity to homes have increased their prices over the last two years. This is despite reducing cost prices for gas. During the winter of 2010, when the cold snap and snow came after Christmas, many homeowners and householders saw their energy prices increase by 20-30% compared to the same three months in 2009. People used the heating more often at night, at higher levels, and kept the heating on during the day, even if the house was empty, to try to avoid burst pipes and a cold damp house.
A survey done recently showed that more than half of us used a blanket to supplement our heating when we were at home this winter and last. Sensible ways of using energy were employed – including keeping curtains shut after dark, keeping draughts to a minimum and leaving the door open after cooking to warm the kitchen after the oven has been switched off. Some older people have gone further, however, resorting to ‘one-room’ living and heating just one room in the house to save money – or getting out to the library during the day, just to keep warm.
Poverty Tax on Heating
There is growing pressure on the government to reduce the so-called ‘poverty premium’ on heating bills. Poorer families and some older people have metres fitted to the homes so that they prepay their bills. These are installed by gas and electricity companies who charge a huge amount more, compared to customers with no metre who pay by direct debit. A family of four on the poverty line ends up paying around £250 more per year for the same amount of energy compared to a better off family of four who pay by direct debit. This is clearly unfair and is in serious danger of causing poorer families to go without heating and lighting to save money – putting children and older people at serious risk from health problems such as asthma and hypothermia.
Reducing the Impact of Winter
There is no way to make the weather warmer and very little that can be done to change average fuel prices. It is possible to keep a close eye on suppliers and to switch between them to get the lowest rates possible. Some offer benefits for staying loyal – such as £100 cash back after a year – but most do not. It also pays to investigate grants available for home improvements including loft insulation and cavity wall insulation to reduce the amount of heat that is wasted in your home. When the weather is really cold, it does pay to have the heating on all of the time but at a low level, and encourage people to keep active and to wear more clothes to stay comfortable, rather than having the heating high for some of the time and turned off completely at others.
It is also good to share – if you have older members of the family who are struggling, make sure they are getting a hot meal each day and are getting all of the grants they are entitled to. Older people can lose body heat very quickly, so check on them regularly and take action if they seem confused or are obviously not looking after themselves. Deaths from the cold are usually preventable – we just need to care about our relatives and neighbours during cold snaps.