'Fuel Poverty' or Fool's Poverty?

by | Oct 24, 2008

The recent high oil price created a lot of discussion about ‘fuel poverty’. A Guardian article reported yesterday that,

Campaigners failed today in a high court bid to force the government to spend more to end fuel poverty.

Mr Justice McCombe, sitting in London, dismissed an application for judicial review brought by Friends of the Earth and Help the Aged to force the government to meet its targets for helping millions of vulnerable citizens who cannot adequately heat their homes.

Friends of the Earth have been campaigning for higher fuel prices for years. When the market delivers it, they start taking the Government to court. How weird is that? It’s nearly as weird as their stance against biofuels, which they used to campaign for, until it became unfashionable because it hurts the polar bears.

Anyway, what exactly is ‘fuel poverty’? The Guardian explain it thusly:

Households in fuel poverty are defined as those in which more than 10% of income is spent on energy. But far from the numbers falling, the past year has seen a steep increase as gas and electricity bills have rocketed.

Do FoE really care about ‘fuel poverty’? They have been, for a long time, trying to persuade us to use less fuel, to consume less, to travel less, for more taxes on fuel, and for ‘strong climate law’. If FoE don’t want us to do anything with our money, why should it care what we spend on fuel?

This writer cannot currently afford a new desktop computer. Does that mean he is in ‘computer poverty’?

The latest official figures show that 3.5 million households in the UK were in fuel poverty in 2006, but that figure is though to have risen to around 5 million, and the charities argue that many of these people now face a stark choice of “heat or eat”.

Clearly the problem for people who spend 10%+ of their income on fuel is that they don’t have enough money. But to say so would leave FoE’s critique of ‘consumer society’ rather hollow.

‘Fuel poverty’ has been invented to create leverage in political arguments for environmental terms. We can’t speak about simple ‘poverty’ any more. The understanding of ‘justice’ has been displaced by ‘environmental justice’. FoE’s concern for the 5 million households is hollow. They aren’t campaigning for an increase in oil production, nor for people to have access to more energy.

The aims of FoE’s legal action were to highlight:

Government failure to provide a comprehensive and costed plan of action for meeting its targets;
•Government failure to set a minimum standard of energy efficiency to be applied to affected households;
•Repeated criticism of the Government from the independent Fuel Poverty Advisory Group;
•That the Government itself has admitted that targets to reduce and eventually eliminate fuel poverty will be missed.

The campain was intended to call

on the Government to develop a far more effective and comprehensive programme of domestic energy efficiency to simultaneously end suffering from fuel poverty and tackle climate change.

The answer to ‘fuel poverty’ in FoE’s case is for their homes to be better insulated, not for them to achieve economic independence. In other words, the issue is not that people are poor, it’s that there is insufficient legislation to regulate the design of their homes.

This is ‘environmental justice’. It cares not one jot for the poor. It doesn’t want them to be rich, it just wants them to be regulated properly. 


  1. geoff chambers

    Fuel poverty is one of those pseudo-scientific ideas, like carbon footprints, dreamed up by someone who’s statistically obsessed and philosophically challenged.

    You: “The Guardian explains it thusly (sic): ‘Households in fuel poverty are defined as those in which more than 10% of income is spent on energy’ “.

    A family of four costs roughly the same to heat and wash, whatever their income. So a fuel poor family spending 10% of its income on energy becomes fuel rich if its income goes up. So, “fuel poor” means “poor”, nothing more, nothing less. You might as well call them “fag poor” if they spend more than 10% of their income on cigarettes. It’s just the Guardian ‘s way of avoiding the issue of the huge increase in inequality over the past few decades. For poverty as a concept is so Old Labour, so Dickens, so passé.

    So let’s avoid the subject by focussing on some specific , probably ephemeral symptom, which won’t cost much to remedy. Let’s give the poor a fuel subsidy (to add to their bus pass, free tv licence, etc.) so they can’t complain that they’re still poor.

    ps. Have you seen Morabito’s go at WWF on omniclimate.wordpress.com ? It’s open season on the charities, apparently.
    pps I don’t think biofuels hurt polar bears. I think the problem is that they hurt humans, Mexican tortilla consumers and the like. Even Guardian readers know the difference between Mexicans and polar bears (answer : Mexicans, there’s too many of them; polar bears, there’s not enough).

  2. Editors

    Geoff rightly says that the objection to biofuels was that it puts agricultural land into fuel production, rather than food, escalating food prices (in theory) and causing hunger.

    Our defence is that it was a deliberate attempt to annoy Talisker. Ultimately, however, it was the polar bears which FoE were most concerned about.

  3. crsmumby

    Well – I’m sure “Tax poverty” – were is my compensation ;-)



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