We need anti-racist fuel poverty policy in the UK

I’ve been waiting for a blog with this title. Someone, somewhere will — I hoped — lay a path for me to follow. I am uncertain about many things in the energy policy space. But I am absolutely certain about this — we need anti-racist fuel poverty policy in the UK.

Last year, Professor Jennie Stephens published a new book “Diversifying Power. Why we need antiracist, feminist leadership on climate and energy”6. She concludes with four sets of actions:

  1. Prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do. This includes talking about it, even in spaces where the conversation has yet to begin. That includes work to understand and unlearn racism and sexism. Your own identity and sources of privilege will shape this work but everyone can play a role, particularly in prioritising making new leaders welcome in our sector.
  2. Connect to decision making at every level — elected officials, collective action organisations and community-based energy initiatives. An important part of this will be exploring novel economic structures (like cooperatives) and learning from one another.
  3. Advocate system-level change — ensure that debates include more than individual behaviour change and actively seek change and the structural level, moving beyond unproductive blaming and shaming of individuals or communities.
  4. Leverage data, science and information for change.

Its the final area where I see the biggest missed opportunity in fuel poverty in the UK. We have amazing fuel poverty research that has strong links to decision-makers across the nations. But I really struggle to find research that centres on the lived experience of people that articulates experiences linked to ethnicity. In the USA, work from Dr Diana Hernadez7 and Dr Tony Reames8 highlights the value of this insight.

Do we need to start from scratch?

So, based on the data what do we already know about race and energy in the UK?

· We know that experience of housing varies enormously between ethnic groups within the UK2. And we know housing is central to fuel poverty.

· We know that there is an important link between power inequalities between landlords and tenants are central to understanding why some remain in fuel poverty despite the right to access programmes for support3. And we also know that some landlords are racist.

· We know, since February, that BAME communities are far more likely to pay a “poverty premium” in the energy market, paying more for their energy bills4.

· We know that access to the best energy deals can be limited for people in debt. And post-Covid, people who are Black are likely to be facing higher debts related to household bills5.

But the specific evidence base that links experiences to ethnicity and recommends how fuel poverty policy can be anti-racist? I haven’t found it. Of course, inequalities in society have an impact in the fuel poverty space — why would it be uniquely immune? But an active debate about anti-racist policies linked to energy affordability in the US has yet to reach the UK.

When I look at the recommendations for a feminist, anti-racist energy policy from the US, I feel hopeful for a way forward here in the UK for fuel poverty policy. The past decades have seen hard-won links between decision-makers and leading research that provides important opportunities for putting people’s lived experience at the heart of designing fuel poverty policies. This includes linking technical debates to questions of justice and fairness.

To deal with climate change we must simultaneously address the underlying injustice in our world and work to eradicate poverty, exclusion and inequality — Mary Robinson

Considering justice is not only a focus of work in climate, but it also plays a central role in considering fuel poverty and energy justice. This is particularly prominent in academia but has a growing prominence in practitioner debates too. There are three core pillars of energy justice — distributional justice, participation justice and recognition justice9. As we consider the foundations for anti-racist fuel poverty policy, these could play an important role in prompting challenges to existing or new fuel poverty programmes:

- What are the distributional outcomes of fuel poverty policy? Do we understand the impact of outcomes on diverse communities?

- Are diverse groups welcome, respected participants in fuel poverty policy development?

- Do we recognise the diverse range of experiences and energy needs of all people who use energy in their homes?

Even where considerations of energy justice are less prominent, fairness in energy is a core part of debates. I see the fairness debates as a crucial opportunity to seize to deliver anti-racist fuel poverty policies. A barrier I hear articulated again and again is a challenge about how wide-ranging considerations of fairness to specific discussions. As I wrote up my own research about fairness and justice last year, I developed these four prompts:

Funding — where is the funding coming from to fuel poverty policies? If there is a regressive funding stream, which communities are inequitably impacted?

Accessible — are fuel poverty programmes accessible in themselves? Are there barriers specific to particular communities?

Impactful — who are fuel poverty policies impacting? Are there communities struggling to access the benefits linked to programmes?

Representation — who is represented in decision making about fuel poverty policies and the design of programmes?

What can I do?

If you’ve heard me speak this year, it's likely you’ve heard me recommend three practical steps to those of us working at the intersection of evidence and decision-making on affordable energy. I think these are equally important as practical steps we can each take to deliver an anti-racist fuel poverty policy and would love to see this discussion bring out more proposals. For now though, here are mine:

Deliver a platform for diverse speakers at events. The energy industry has the Diversity in Energy Speakers list10. If the frame of “energy industry” isn’t one that is close enough for the fuel poverty debates you participate in, you can start one! And you can use your profile, as a speaker or participant, to highlight the importance of diverse panels and speakers when you attend events.

Centre lived experience of diverse communities in policy debates. Prof Stephens notes the importance of empathy and compassion by telling the stories of innovative and diverse communities6. I was taken aback to see an industry leader earlier this year describe a shift to consider empathy in energy as the equivalent of greenwashing — becoming so endemic a discussion that it was losing value. I strongly disagree — empathy needs to be the foundation of our work to ensure that lived experiences of energy are the predominant evidence base in decision making. A practical step for fuel poverty research would be to ensure that historic research is easily accessible and usable for those of us who need to be able to draw on decades of insight. I’ve heard the idea of a Fuel Poverty research archive and would support this as an important foundation.

2021 needs to be the year we go beyond “BAME”. We have gained important insight and evidence into experiences of energy and fuel poverty using BAME as a demographic4. But it needs to be part of our history, not our future. We know that this is far to broad a group to accurately reflect people’s lived experience of fuel poverty because of the data on housing1, but it was also communicated loud and clear11. Again, the ability to revisit old data in terms of ethnicity will be key, but as we commission new research this needs to be locked in. As an additional challenge, we need to use the foundation of research that captures individual protected characteristics to understanding how they intersect. We need to understand how people with multiple marginalised identities are experiencing fuel poverty and how they access, or struggle to access, fuel poverty support schemes.

What now?

This is a debate that needs to happen. I do not have lived experience of racism and I’m on a steep learning curve learning to be anti-racist. My intention is that my sharing this is that we have the debate we need to deliver a fuel poverty policy that genuinely supports people who do have lived experience and encourage those of us with privilege step up12.

So do you agree that we need an anti-racist fuel poverty policy? Please share this blog so we can get this discussion going!

What I’m listening to

What I’m reading

Diversifying Power Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy

Proceeds of this book go to the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program but you can also access a free Youtube video

Dr Diana Hernadez — Understanding ‘energy insecurity ’and why it matters to health

Dr Tony Reames — Targeting energy justice: Exploring spatial, racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in urban residential heating energy efficiency.

References

  1. ONS & Kevin Gulliver
  2. Ambrose & Hickman —
  3. Professor Stephens — Diversifying Power Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy
  4. You can find Dr Diana Hernadez at
  5. You can find Dr Tony Reames at
  6. I reflect on my sources of privilege on my blog here

My personal blog sharing thoughts on consumer outcomes in essential markets.