Addressing fuel poverty on a budget

Malvern Hills District Council has established a highly cost-effective scheme which is making a rapid local impact, addressing fuel poverty among those of its residents who live in the most poorly insulated housing. By obtaining great value for money through its contracting and by partnering with a charity it has achieved this within a notably constrained budget.

The challenge
Malvern Hills (in Worcestershire) has a high percentage of residents who are aged over 60. The District Council’s survey information also showed a large number of properties off the mains gas network – approximately 35% of the total – and a significant proportion of older solid wall properties. It was calculated that some 27% of local households were living in fuel poverty, with the incidence being highest in the more rural areas.
In responding to this situation twin challenges for the District Council were to make most efficient use of the limited available funding and to encourage a good take up of grants among needy households.

The response
In January 2012 Malvern Hills District Council launched a new initiative to tackle fuel poverty. In order to focus help on those in the greatest need, it was initially targeted at residents aged over 60 who lived in homes with a standard assessment procedure (SAP) energy efficiency rating of 35 or below.
Those meeting the eligibility criteria are able to obtain free loft and cavity wall insulation. This directly addresses a Council priority, to support older people. The scheme has since been extended and is now open to all households in low SAP- rated properties.
In addition, the Council offers grants for the external insulation of solid wall properties under a PGFlex scheme. That scheme has rather more complex eligibility criteria, with the percentage grant made available depending upon the household’s existing fuel type.
Through a highly competitive tender exercise the Council succeeded in securing agreement with a contractor willing to supply both cavity wall and loft insulation for an average of just £50 per property1. With funding totalling £70,000 (£40,000 from Warmer Worcestershire and £30,000 from the District Council) there is thus potential for this scheme to assist up to 1,400 households.
The Council recognised the need to make sure that all eligible households were made aware of the scheme. Accordingly, they chose to promote the scheme by a blanket mail-out to defined post-code areas, thus ensuring that the whole district was covered whilst keeping postage costs to a minimum. Great care was taken in designing the information leaflets which were written in plain English and were clearly branded as coming from the Council. This gave recipients confidence that the scheme was a genuine Council-run initiative. The chosen contractor was not, however, identified by name in the initial mailing as, at that stage, the information was not thought to be particularly important.
The charity Act on Energy is a key partner in delivery of the scheme. It undertakes the initial screening of telephone enquiries, checking for eligibility and referring people on to the contractors. In addition, it helps to overcome other barriers to take-up by providing informal support. For example, it may assist with form-filling or even arrange practical assistance such as organising loft clearance. As Act on Energy is independent of the Council their practical support for the scheme has proved extremely helpful.

Benefits and outcomes
In the first three months of the scheme’s operation over 1,200 enquiries were received by Act on Energy. These resulted in some 800 positive referrals on to the contractors. This is a response rate which is believed to be much higher than that achieved by most comparable schemes elsewhere.
By the end of March 2012 over 250 properties had been insulated under the scheme. Feedback from the recipient households has been very positive, as illustrated by the examples quoted below.

Recipient comments:
“I had my loft insulated for free, and I am very grateful to you. All the people were excellent. I am benefiting already as I have not had the heating on as high or as often as I did before.”
“The relevant workers were reliable, efficient, polite and helpful. It was my good fortune to be part of the scheme. Thank you very much, and I’m sure I’ll be appreciating the results for years to come.”
“Thank you and the Council for the free loft insulation. The firm concerned carried out the work very efficiently.”

Analysis of survey data from the initial homes that have been treated shows that residents are expected to save between £100 and £600 annually on their household fuel bills. The scheme is therefore seen as offering three related benefits, which are: reducing the incidence and severity of fuel poverty; improving the living conditions of participating households; and improving the health of residents.

Resources used
Aside from the £70,000 budget for the scheme’s main contract, mentioned above, the resources used can be summarised as:
* A District Council supporting payment made to the charity Act on Energy of £1,000;
* Staffing input from District Council officers – eight working days to set up the scheme and five days to analyse the scheme’s outputs.
* The time input from staff at Act on Energy (the work being accommodated within its existing staffing); and
* Total printing and mailing costs of £6,000 in order to promote the scheme.

Lessons for others
Malvern Hills District Council is understandably pleased with the success of this scheme and recognises both the valuable input of Act on Energy and the good working relationship with the chosen contractor.
In particular, the Council considers that the quality of its publicity material has contributed greatly to the popularity of the scheme. They would advise any other authority to take care to ensure that their mailings are very clearly identified as being a Council initiative, so that they stand out from the plethora of commercial promotions.
The scheme encountered one unexpected difficulty. The Council’s mail promotion attracted other insulation providers who tried to ‘piggy-back’ on the scheme, some directly cold-calling households with alternative offers. This undoubtedly caused confusion to a number of elderly residents and may even have discouraged some from taking up the Council’s scheme. Learning from that experience, the Council would strongly advise others specifically to name the appointed contractor on all publicity material.
The Council has used an energy efficiency database linked to its Local Land and Property Gazetteer to hold stock condition and energy efficiency information for all properties in the district. This has enabled them to justify the need for Council action, to target households most in need of support, and to monitor and measure the effectiveness of the improvement measures implemented.