Fuel poverty: to heat or eat?

  • 2.28 million households are now living in fuel poverty
  • The social housing sector is particularly susceptible to fuel poverty and the associated risks
  • Landlords can take positive steps to mitigate the risks to their own organisations and the communities they serve

Over one in ten households are now in fuel poverty, and the extent and depth the problem is growing, according to the latest Fuel Poverty Monitor.

Fuel poverty is defined as having to spend 10% or more of household income on energy to maintain a healthy living environment. The social housing sector is particularly susceptible, with a large proportion of people on low incomes or reliant on state support.

Fuel poverty has a number of associated risks for social landlords, including damage to housing stock and potential liability for the injury or death of vulnerable individuals.

Social landlords will want to understand the possible impact of fuel poverty and take appropriate steps to address these risks.

Damage to housing stock

If tenants cannot afford to adequately heat their homes, this will increase the risk of damage to their property and those surrounding it.

In the winter months, burst pipes, freezing water tanks and escape of water are significant risks for social landlords.

”Due to the presence of many mid- to high-rise developments, this is a particular problem for the social housing sector,” says Paul Feltham, Senior Risk Analyst at Zurich. “With multiple buildings, if you have a water leak in one home, that could affect a large number of other properties as well. Damp, condensation and mould are all similarly problematic, as they will cause a building to deteriorate over time and can be difficult to repair.”

Landlord should also be aware of the possibility of tenants using their own forms of heating, such as portable electric or gas heaters. These present a much greater fire risk, and although most landlords will stipulate that they cannot be used, there will always be the temptation to do so for tenants who feel they cannot afford to heat their entire property.

From a liability perspective, if landlords have changed something simply because it costs too much, then that is unlikely to hold up in court

Cath Aislabie, Casualty Team Leader at Zurich

Potential for liability

Vulnerable tenants who are the victims of fuel poverty face the risk of illness, and even death. In fact, around 20,000 more people aged over 65 die in England and Wales during the winter months than at other times of year.

The Landlord and tenant Act 1985 includes obligations to keep installations for water heating in repair and proper working order. There is no obligation for a landlord to replace an inherently inefficient system that costs a tenant more to run. However, if an existing heating installation is inefficient because of its physical condition, then there is a positive duty on the landlord to fix it. If a tenant is injured due to a failure to repair a heating installation, then there is the potential a liability claim against the landlord.

Cath Aislabie, Casualty Team Leader at Zurich, says: “Social landlords need to ensure they have appropriate systems in respect of maintenance. Notifications of defects, site inspections and maintenance reports all need to be recorded. It is important to keep a strong audit trail to defend future claims.”

But it is not just tenants’ difficulties in paying for fuel that should be considered. Rising fuel costs will also affect a social landlord’s ability to pay for fuel themselves. Lighting has recently caught the public’s attention, as some councils have begun switching off streetlights to save money. Social landlords may choose to take similar action in respect of lighting in communal areas, but need to assess the risks of this, such as a possible increases in slips and trips.

“From a liability perspective, if landlords have changed something simply because it costs too much, then that is unlikely to hold up in court. They need to have fully documented the reasons for such an action, which should include a full risk assessment,” says Cath.

Education is key

Mitigating the associated risks of fuel poverty is a lot to do with education.

“There needs to be guidance from social landlords about precautions to take in relation to cold weather, and fuel generally,” says Paul. “Many social landlords are still yet to put information on their websites regarding these subjects.”

Tenants need to understand the risks and how they can reduce their fuel bills, while still safeguarding their homes and wellbeing.

Zurich Municipal is happy to discuss these issues with customers, and can help social landlords in combating the effects of fuel poverty.