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08 May 2012

Fuel poverty eradication in the UK: A model for the EU?

Fuel poverty eradication in the UK: A model for the EU?

In this guest post, Lauren Probert discusses the development of the UK fuel poverty definition, and policy framework, and critically assesses the potential for transfer of policy from the UK model to other EU Member States.

In 2000, the United Kingdom became the first state to establish a legally mandated target for fuel poverty eradication. The passing of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 came more than a decade after a UK academic – Brenda Boardman – established the first quantitative definition of fuel poverty (Boardman, 1988), and 27 years after the oil crisis that first brought the problem to prominence (Bradshaw and Hutton, 1983). Moving to the present day, the UK remains the only country with a policy framework dedicated to the eradication of fuel poverty. As the profile of fuel – or energy – poverty begins to rise across the EU, it might seem inevitable that a process of ‘policy transfer’ (see Dolowitz and Marsh, 1996) should begin to occur, as states developing their own approaches to the problem seek to learn from the extended and distinct experience of the UK. Whilst there are undeniable advantages to such an exercise, it is important also to establish the limits of comparison in order that the full benefits of UK experience might be effectively leveraged by practitioners in other states, with minimal risk of policy failure.

The UK undeniably offers an initial example of the process by which an official definition of fuel poverty might be established and used to measure progress towards alleviation targets.  Whilst the suitability of an EU-wide definition of fuel poverty remains subject to debate, both Boardman’s original conceptualisation of the problem (1991) and the revised definition proposed in John Hills’ recent independent review (2012) present rigorous groundwork valuable to anyone seeking to define and measure fuel poverty within the context of a different EU member state. Indeed, either formulation of the definition could be adapted to take account of differing national circumstances as viewed appropriate.  The UK also presents a number of examples of both large-scale energy efficiency initiatives and economic interventions being delivered with some intention of improving affordability. However, even within the UK, the range of material variation exhibited by both dwellings and occupants requires approaches to supporting the fuel poor to be extremely flexible to differing circumstances.  Expanding consideration to all EU member states would open up a wealth of new variables, as the implications of differing climates, dwelling types, demographics and income levels would all impact upon delivery. At the state level, legislative structures, approaches to welfare, and views as to the appropriate nature of state intervention would also have significant ramifications for the development of fuel poverty policy.

In considering the UK as a source of policy transfer, it cannot go unnoticed that despite groundbreaking moves to recognize the problem, ongoing attempts to eradicate fuel poverty have been largely unsuccessful. Interim goals have been missed, as will ultimate targets at current rate of progression (Hills, 2012). UK Government strategy has been criticised by independent organisations as lacking commitment and coherent structure (FPAG, 2010).  The existing approach is currently under review (see Hills, 2012; DECC, 2011), though it is yet to be seen whether this will result in substantially improved delivery. This is not to say that UK fuel poverty eradication policy has been an unmitigated failure; however, it is clear that mistakes need to be considered alongside successes. Indeed, practitioners elsewhere in the EU might harness this learning to “leapfrog” to improved delivery. For example, the Winter Fuel Payment scheme that operates in the UK offers universal grants to over-60s, including many individuals who are not fuel poor. This may be regarded as a misallocation of funds, but it is one that is now politically difficult to rescind. Any EU state seeking to learn from the UK might be well served to take this type of example into account when developing policy so as to avoid similar difficulties.

Whilst UK delivery may be imperfect, the nation is at least a pioneer in acknowledging that fuel poverty is a significant problem, one that impacts upon the health and wellbeing of citizens and requires immediate action. The achievement of such recognition presents one of the strongest lessons that can be drawn from the United Kingdom, one with great potential for transference: the importance of advocacy in establishing fuel poverty as a concern of the state. The work of organisations such as National Energy Action, the Association for the Conservation of Energy, Friends of the Earth, and the National Right to Fuel Campaign has been crucial, not only in moving fuel poverty onto the legislative agenda in the first instance, but in maintaining pressure upon the government to meet targets. If fuel poverty is to become a policy priority across Europe, it is likely that similar input will be needed across state borders.  It might even conceivably be left to such groups to lead the way in engaging in policy transfer activity. There is little incentive for UK politicians to reach out across the EU and demonstrate the importance of tackling fuel poverty and lessons that have been learned regarding best practice, particularly given that there remains significant headway to be made at home. Equally, European politicians appear broadly reluctant to pick up on the issue, let alone seek input from the UK. The EU, also, has yet to establish any overriding strategy that would incentivise such policy transfer (see Harriet Thomson’s earlier blog, ‘Is the EU doing enough?’). At this stage, it seems likely to be left to ‘outsiders’ (see Hudson and Lowe: 202-4) to attempt to drive policy change, e.g., non-governmental organisations and advocacy groups. If fuel poverty as a concern of government is to gain a higher profile across the EU, such groups – both in the UK and across the EU ­– would likely benefit from seeking out opportunities to share knowledge and unite behind the issue.


Boardman, B., 1988, “Economic, Social and Technical Considerations for Fuel Poverty Policy”. PhD thesis, University of Sussex.

Boardman, B., 1991, Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth, London: Belhaven Press.

Bradshaw, J. and Hutton, S., 1983, Social Policy Options and Fuel Poverty, Journal of Economic Psychology 3: 249-266.

 DECC, 2011, “The Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation: Consultation Document”. London: DECC.

DECC, 2012a, “Warm Home Discount Scheme”. London: DECC.

DECC, 2012b, “Warm Front”. London: DECC.

Dolowitz, D. and Marsh, D., 1996, ‘Who learns what from whom: a review of the policy transfer literature’, Political Studies 44: 343-57.

FPAG, 2010, “Fuel Poverty Advisory Group Eighth Annual Report”. London: FPAG.

Hills, J., 2012, Getting the measure of fuel poverty: Final report of the Fuel Poverty Review. London: DECC and LSE.

Hudson, J. and Lowe, S., 2009, Understanding the Policy Process: Second Edition. Bristol: The Policy Press.