In the face of a global gas-price crisis pushing UK energy bills to their highest-ever levels, many Bristol homes remain draughty and poorly insulated. Now, increasing numbers of families are questioning whether they can afford to stay warm as wintry weather has bitten hard during December.
To help the city’s most vulnerable residents through the coldest months, Bristol Energy Network (BEN) has secured funding to provide emergency insulation kits and DIY training to almost 200 households.
BEN will be running a series of workshops during early 2023 in six different areas around the city, where participants will receive guidance and training from DIY experts. The network is also helping to coordinate the just-launched Bristol Emergency Winter Fuel Fund, a crowdfunding initiative aimed at helping Bristolians meet their energy costs during the coldest months.
Locations for the workshops confirmed so far include Filwood Community Centre, Hartcliffe Climate Action Hub aka the Roundhouse, Docklands Community Centre in St Paul’s, Southmead Greenway Centre, and The Hub in Lockleaze. Full details of the sessions confirmed so far, which all include food and childcare arrangements, can be found at the bottom of this article.
The boxes being provided to attendees at the workshops will include insulation strips and other materials, to draught-proof windows and doors and help keep their homes warmer this winter.
“We’re running 12 workshops, and have 178 boxes to distribute,” explains Rachel Moffat from BEN. “People take them home to install, and they contain the materials people need to follow the advice in the workshops, and to potentially help neighbours with their homes too.”
Alongside partner Re:Work, a Bristol social enterprise offering skills training and employment support for young adults, BEN’s emergency boxes scheme offers a practical response – albeit one that should never have been necessary in the first place – for households where wasting energy is simply not an option.
As well as the contents of the boxes and the DIY support, the workshops include energy-saving advice, guidance on how to communicate with energy companies, and information on where wider support is available.
Residents who identify as being on a low income and live in the areas where the workshops take place will be able to apply for a spot.
A drop in the ocean
The announcement of BEN’s emergency support scheme comes after Bristol City Council secured £2.7 million of funding through the Bright Green Homes scheme, where people on low incomes living in poorly insulated housing can apply for up to £25,000 towards making their homes more energy efficient.
Currently, 3.2 million households in England are estimated to be experiencing fuel poverty, notoriously forcing people to make ‘heating or eating’ choices.
The kits contain materials people need to follow the advice in the workshops, and to potentially help neighbours with their homes too.Rachel Moffat, Bristol Energy Network
As many as 30,000 households are thought to live in fuel poverty in Bristol. This makes emergency help for 200 families, while welcome, feel like a drop in the ocean, highlighting the need for political intervention.
This winter – even with a price freeze in place to cap average energy bills at £2,500 – the picture is deeply worrying. “The price freeze is helpful, but that’s still an 80% hike since last summer,” Moffat explains. “People’s pay hasn’t gone up. It’s not like fuel poverty didn’t already exist – people were struggling before. Now everyone’s struggling.”
Moreover, the so-called ‘price freeze’ has been confusingly communicated – there is no actual cap on energy bills, only on the price-per-unit of energy. “We always try to remind people that they pay for every unit of energy they use,” says Moffat. “What’s an ‘average home’? Everyone has different usage, and each unit you use, you pay for.”
Renewed price rise fears
Few aspects of Liz Truss’ brief tenure as prime minister will be mourned. But in the scramble to undo the chaos Truss unleashed through her tax cuts for the rich, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt reduced the length of time whereby energy prices would be ‘frozen’ from two years to six months.
While Hunt announced in the Autumn Statement that support will continue beyond April 2023, it will be scaled back, meaning the costs incurred by a ‘typical’ household will rise from £2,500 to £3,000 under the new cap.
“This winter, many people are at crisis levels,” Moffat confirms. “But we want to try to get past the media panic, to make people feel more in control, otherwise you hit despair, because we can’t control energy prices. We’re saying, let’s turn the heating on but have control of it.”
Campaigners have been pointing to the win-win of insulated homes for the last two decades. Bristol’s Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) has long been arguing for energy efficiency to be prioritised, to cut carbon emissions and energy bills.
More recently, Insulate Britain, and the Warm This Winter coalition have been desperately trying to make politicians take insulation more seriously, and arguing for a windfall tax on gas companies’ soaring profits.
In a darkly ironic twist, the funding for BEN’s emergency insulation initiative comes from the REDRESS scheme (which energy companies voluntarily pay into when they ‘may have breached’ energy regulator OFGEM’s rules).
The legacy of political inaction
Fixing leaky houses has always been a no-brainer. But successive governments have failed to rise to the challenge, preferring flashy, expensive infrastructure projects over the less showy, and more fiddly work of improving household energy efficiency.
Seen alongside Bristol City Council’s newly launched ‘Welcoming Spaces’ initiative (where people can come to socialise and keep warm), BEN’s emergency intervention serves a damning verdict on political inaction around household insulation.
Perhaps, with unmanageably high energy bills and the climate crisis upon us, there will finally be a political breakthrough. But it won’t come cheap: Bristol City Council’s fuel poverty action plan from 2020 put the cost of retrofitting Bristol’s social housing stock alone at around £200 million.
The only way this level of expenditure is likely to be secured is through the council’s ambitious ‘City Leap’ scheme, which was approved by councillors on 6 December. The partnership between the council and two private sector firms, US-based renewable energy specialists Amaresco Ltd, and Vattenfall Heat UK (Sweden’s nationally-owned energy company), will pump £424 million into the city’s low carbon transition.
Details are still currently limited. But the council has said insulation of its estate will be a priority, with a lot resting on the promise to retrofit all social housing by 2030.
Until then, BEN’s emergency boxes scheme could be a lifeline, albeit for limited numbers of Bristolians.
“We hope that an outcome of this DIY project is to support people on a retrofit journey,” says Moffat. “(BEN) will never be able to afford to fund putting heat pumps in, but we can get people ready for changes ahead. There is hope in taking action.”
Confirmed dates for Bristol Energy Network and Re:Work’s workshops are: 12 and 17 January 2023 at the Greenway Centre in Southmead, 14 and 24 January at Lockleaze Hub, and 11 January and 18 February at Filwood Community Centre. Further sessions at Docklands Community Centre, St Paul’s, Henbury and Brentry Community Centre and the Roundhouse, Hartcliffe, will be announced in due course.