Late last year we learnt that there was a jaw-dropping 29% increase in the number of Excess Winter Deaths between 2012 and 2013. Put simply, these are deaths that could (and should) have been avoided. 31,000 more people died in England and Wales. Not all of these people died as a result of hypothermia, but whatever the precise cause, it is a sad and shocking fact that tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them aged 75 or more, die cold or as a result of the cold.
Grim figures like this normally spur government into action. Ministers have certainly made all the right noises on the subject. We have heard from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change that the Government will renew its efforts to tackle inflation-busting increases in fuel bills. We have heard politicians in TV studios talking about the links between unaffordable fuel bills and older people’s ability to keep warm in their own home. And we have seen a new strategy, the Government’s Fuel Poverty Framework for Action.
To be fair, the government is taking a number of concrete steps to protect older people at risk of, and living in fuel poverty. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently agreed to extend the Warm Home Discount, a £135 rebate a number of pensioners get to help pay for escalating electricity bills. Originally it was going to finish early next year but now it will run through to April 2016.
How devastating, though, that none of these individual measures came in early enough to have prevented last year’s excess winter deaths. How frustrating also, that none of these measures, be it the recent changes to the Energy Companies Obligation and Green Deal, or the continued rebate dished out through the Warm Home Discount, feel in any way coordinated enough – or frankly, ambitious enough - to fill us with confidence that we won’t see excess winter deaths being reported this winter.
Talk is about the need to redefine fuel poverty targets, thinking less about eradication and thinking more about ‘improved targeting’ and ‘the need for new targeting tools’. Older people need practical action: draught-proofing, new boilers, insulation and the many other steps Home Improvement Agencies (HIAs) and handyperson schemes have a solid reputation for delivering.
So last Tuesday, it was with a bit of optimism that I left a brilliant event chaired by Baroness Andrews, on behalf of Foundations Independent Living Trust (FILT). We heard about FILT’s new Warm Homes Service.
Warm Homes Service was delivered by 55 agencies, reached more than 6,000 people within a four-month period − many of whom had long term conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, asthma and dementia − and carried out more than 1,200 jobs ranging from fixing faulty boilers to draughty windows. Research carried out by Sheffield Hallam University, evaluating the impact of the scheme, illustrates that home improvements are a vital preventative measure that stop older people requiring emergency treatment or lengthy hospital stays.
If anything is going to bring down excess winter deaths: it is this local, co-ordinated action, with new improvements speedily being installed in leaky homes. We wait to see what happens once the Government’s new fuel poverty strategy starts kicking in, but in the meantime let’s look to the likes of Foundations for inspiration. They have supported HIAs and partner agencies to meaningfully make a difference to older people struggling in, let’s face it, unimaginably cold homes.