Consumer: Families in hot water over heating bills

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Cash-strapped families are thinking twice about switching the heating back on, but help is at hand. Aisha Iqbal reports.

As the cold weather kicks in, many of us will be thinking of switching our heating back on after the summer months.

But for many cash-strapped families, rising fuel poverty will make them think twice before they even switch the heating back on.

Many others will find the dormant period has left their central heating system in need of repair – and more potential costs.

According to research, 3.2 million UK households are facing fuel poverty this year. Around a quarter of families are simply leaving the heating off and living in unacceptably cold conditions because they simply can’t afford to pay the bills.

Choosing savings on bills over a comfortable home is a very serious problem for many of us, and when you add into the mix the potential cost of unexpected repairs, it’s hardly something to leave you with a warm glow.

However help might well be at hand.

One scheme, npower Health Through Warmth, works with organisations in Leeds to repair or replace broken heating systems for vulnerable people. The scheme helps people with cold-related illnesses who would be particularly affected if they were without heating as the colder months draw in.

Last autumn, npower Health Through Warmth took more than 2,000 referrals for vulnerable people needing help with their heating and is expecting a similar response this year, after the scorching summer has seen heating switched off for several months.

Elaine Midwinter, npower Health Through Warmth scheme manager, said: “September is often a busy time for the Health Through Warmth team as many people turn their heating back on after the summer months to find it in need of repair and are worried they won’t be able to keep warm during the winter.

“As temperatures start to drop, we are keen to make people in Leeds aware that help could be available if they find themselves without heating and encourage anyone who thinks that they, or someone they know, may be eligible to get in touch.”

npower Health Through Warmth is available to homeowners who have a cold-related illness, a low income with little or no savings and who are unable to fully fund measures, such as a new boiler or heating system. You do not have to be, or become, an npower customer to benefit from the scheme.

Since the scheme was founded in 2000, more than 80,000 vulnerable residents in England and Wales have been referred to npower Health Through Warmth for help with heating and insulation.

More than £64.9m has been spent on the work, with £1.7m coming from charities. In addition, £8.6m has been contributed from the npower Health Through Warmth Crisis Fund.

For more information, or to apply for help, visit www.healththroughwarmth.com.

Last week, companies and organisations dedicated to tackling fuel poverty came together in Harrogate for National Energy Action’s annual conference.

The event was designed to help inform a new fuel poverty strategy, connect national policy and local delivery and examine what more needs to be done to eradicate fuel poverty in communities across the UK.

“Bills are going up, the level of debt people are suffering is going up, and we know we have at least 3.2 million UK households in fuel poverty”, explained Maria Wardrobe, Director of External Affairs at National Energy Action.

“People in their homes can’t do anything about global energy prices. What they can do is look at their own energy use.

“Low-cost solutions with low pay back periods are really important and have a significant role to play in helping people reduce their energy consumption.”

Amongst the solutions on show at the conference was a small household device, Chop-Cloc, that helps consumers save up to 30 per cent on their heating bills without noticing any difference in temperature.

CEO Mark Kerray said: “Escalating energy bills and increasing levels of fuel poverty are frankly frightening. The need for radical solutions is clear”.

Are you in fuel poverty?

According to Energy UK, a fuel poor household is one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel use to heat its home to an adequate standard. In England, this is defined as 21°C in the living room and 18°C in other occupied rooms.

Since 2001, the Government has had a legal duty to set out policies that will help cut out fuel poverty. A variety of schemes have been introduced, but the number of households in fuel poverty has not fallen in line with targets.

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