Andrew Cooper, Head of Business Development and Fundraising

Pocket power rules as small changes mean heating and eating are on the menu

First published in Housing Digital

Did you know that 1 in 10 people, or five million British adults, have less than £10 a month left over once they have paid their essential bills? 

And figures released recently by the End Fuel Poverty Coalition estimate that around 400k homes could be pushed into fuel poverty this winter, as energy bills are set to rise by almost 10%.

Last year, we gave out 576 fuel vouchers totalling over £25k to customers who were struggling to pay their bills. It was great to be able to step in and offer tangible support at a point in time where many people didn’t know where to turn.

However, we also know that people on the lowest incomes often end up paying more for essential goods and services - and that this often happens because of something that might seem quite obvious or easy to change – which is not switching over to the best fuel tariff.  

To be honest we’re probably all guilty of ignoring that meerkat or singing opera guy as they tell us to ‘compare the market’. That’s because switching tariffs takes time and attention. It also generally requires access to the internet. If you don’t have that, how can you easily find out which rates are best? And when you’re working hard to make ends meet or to find employment, who has the energy to scout about online for the best deals? These things fall to the bottom of everyone’s list.

But these small changes are essential, because as well as the impact on budgets, we also recognise the impact of not being able to afford to effectively heat a home on our customers’ health and wellbeing.

A study quoted in the Public Health England paper ‘Fuel poverty and cold home-related health problems’ found that people with asthma were two to three times more likely to live in cold and damp household conditions than non-asthmatics, with the same report showing that visits to the doctors for respiratory tract infections increased by up to 19% for every one degree drop in mean temperature below 5°C.

In 2012-13, there were an estimated 29,200 excess winter deaths in England, with estimates suggesting that around 10% of excess winter deaths are directly attributable to fuel poverty and that 21.5% of excess winter deaths are attributable to the coldest 25% of homes.

That’s why we’re bringing in Pocket Power – a small social enterprise that supports people to change provider for energy, broadband and mobile phones – offering researched advice and support via a free phone number.

They’ve got £10,000 funding from us to work with 400 of our customers initially to reduce their bills. The service is unique because it addresses three barriers to switching that people face: time, tech and trust – applicants simply call a free phone line where they can switch to cheaper providers and apply for discounts. Our customers can currently be referred by someone from Sovereign such as a tenancy support advisor or employment and training advisor, as we roll the service out gradually.

However, as we progress, referrals might come from someone on our trades or housing team. We’ll trial a pilot approach where we ask our people to have a simple conversation with customers if they’re at their homes. For example, they might notice that it feels chilly inside, or that the meter has not been topped up – and at that point they could mention the fact that we can offer support, or flag it to our support teams in another way.     

This means we can start a dialogue with customers that’s backed up with access to our other offers including independent debt advice, budgeting courses, digital courses, fuel poverty vouchers, the Sovereign support fund – and of course all of our employment and training support.  

We don’t want to interfere – we don’t want to coddle. But we do want to make sure that those of our customers who are faced with heating hassles know where to turn. Heat or eat quite simply shouldn’t be a question that has to be asked any more.