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09 May 2016

The struggle to afford adequate energy: different ways of knowing fuel poverty

The struggle to afford adequate energy: different ways of knowing fuel poverty

In this guest post, Dr Rose Chard presents a new way of framing and understanding the issue of fuel poverty via a ‘ways of knowing’ framework based on her earlier doctoral research1.

Over the past decade, there has been significant policy and practitioner attention given to the development of definitions and categories, processes and procedures of fuel poverty in the UK. This has been part of an attempt to know and tackle the struggles that are experienced by ‘fuel poor’ households. This is in terms of changes to the official government definition and measure of fuel poverty (Department of Energy & Climate Change 2012) and also to the delivery of practical programmes designed to tackle access to adequate energy at an affordable cost (Department of Energy & Climate Change 2015b; Centre for Sustainable Energy 2015).

By exploring fuel poverty through three ‘ways of knowing’2 we can see how different forms of knowledge are brought together and how they are used in different contexts, by different actors and for different purposes.

In this research3 three ways of knowing fuel poverty were seen through:

the immediate everyday experiences of households (experiential)

the procedures developed and followed by local organisations working to provide help (procedural)

the statistical definition and modelling that provide the foundation of UK government fuel poverty policy (statistical)

The characteristics of each way of knowing are summarised in the table below:

The statistical and experiential ways of knowing are characterised and understood by fundamentally different forms of knowledge and processes of knowledge production, with the procedural way of knowing sitting in between the other two, working with local householders and with national schemes and policies.

The statistical definition is required as it serves to keep the issue on the political agenda (Walker & Day 2012) and a degree of tangibility when allocating resources through its quantitative nature. Other ways of knowing do not provide the same quantitative picture of the national situation. But it must be treated as a measurement and not as an all-encompassing tool for action.

In designing action to mitigate fuel poverty, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the different ways of knowing fuel poverty shown in the table above. Alongside action on the three root determinants of fuel poverty – energy efficiency, household income, energy prices – there needs to be action on broader understandings that are part of the experience of fuel poverty in people’s homes. Local and community organisations are well-placed to deliver such action as they have experience working in their community dealing with specific characteristics of their area, such as building types, energy supply and local needs (Chard & Walker 2016). Fuel poverty cuts across many different issues that already have a local dimension such as housing policy, social services, primary health care and energy advice delivery (Roberts & Baker 2006).

Many different schemes have attempted to develop and enable local action on fuel poverty in the UK, such as Warm Front and the Energy Company Obligation, which expected a range of organisations to work with residents in their homes to receive relevant support. Local organisations are expected to provide improvements to the lives of residents in their home and (ideally) contribute to reducing the national numbers of households in fuel poverty. They have active relationships within their geographical area with householders and other support organisations through home visits and referrals between other community organisations, such as those providing health and social care. They have a strategic role to deliver schemes that are essential for national efforts to tackle fuel poverty.

The latest UK Fuel Poverty Strategy acknowledges the importance of different actors working together, with cross-sector partnerships being one of the perceived challenges and opportunities of future progress. The forward by the then Secretary of State, Edward Davey, stated that “we need an across government and across society approach if we are to succeed” (DECC, 2015: 7). Partnership working is said to be “the thread running through all our activity” (DECC, 2015: 39) but an appreciation of the nature of the struggle at a local organisation level is also crucial in order to achieve this. So often the importance of these organisations is acknowledged in key energy policy documents (see (Department of Energy & Climate Change 2015a; Department of Energy & Climate Change 2013). By better appreciating the differences between these understandings of fuel poverty, we can conceive a cross-sector approach that better realises the importance of decisions made across all levels and scales. However, recent political developments have the potential to undermine such an integrated view and approach, as under the current framing of austerity4 there is little consideration of how government cuts will impact efforts to undertake action to tackle fuel poverty through partnership working. This raises the question of whether there is sufficient support for the organisations that are expected to be working in partnerships.


Aitken, E.S. & Valentine, G., 2006. Ways of Knowing and Ways of Doing Geographic Research. In Approaches to Human Geography. pp. 1–13.

Centre for Sustainable Energy, 2015. “Beyond the ECO” – and beyond, Bristol. Available at:

Chard, R. & Walker, G., 2016. Living with fuel poverty in older age: Coping strategies and their problematic implications. Energy Research & Social Science. Available at: [Accessed March 29, 2016].

Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2015a. Cutting the cost of keeping warm – a fuel poverty strategy for England, Available at:

Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2012. Fuel Poverty : Changing The Framework For Measurement – Taking Forward The Recommendations From The Hills Review, London.

Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2013. Fuel Poverty: a Framework for Future Action, Available at:

Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2015b. Policy paper – 2010 to 2015 government policy: household energy. Available at:

Lambie-Mumford, H., Snell, C. & Hunt, T., 2016. “ Heating or eating ” and the impact of austerity, Sheffield. Available at:

Roberts, S. & Baker, W., 2006. Tackling fuel poverty at local & regional level : Opportunities to deliver action & policies to stimulate success Centre for Sustainable Energy, ed., Bristol.

Walker, G. & Day, R., 2012. Fuel Poverty as injustice: integrating distribution, recognition and procedure in the struggle for affordable warmth. Energy Policy, 49, pp.69–75. Available at:

[1] This article is written using this PhD research alone and reflects the author’s opinion alone. 

[2] See Aitken and Valentine (2006) for further discussion of what ways of knowing can be in different research contexts. 

[3] These three ways of knowing were investigated through a research design taking a qualitative approach involving interviews with older householders, ethnographic-style observations with three local organisations in England during the winter of 2012 – 2013, and analysis of policy and related documents on statistical modelling of fuel poverty by the UK government. This research was part of a PhD completed in November 2015 at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University. 

[4] See Lambie-Mumford et al (2016) for a discussion of fuel poverty and austerity.