The reality of life in fuel poverty

When the Scottish Government passed its Fuel Poverty Act in 2018, it became the first in the world to enshrine in law the duty to develop policy by researching people’s lived experience of the issue.

‘Lived experience’ is a particular type of qualitative research that seeks to understand people’s day to day lives, the options open to them and the choices they make. It provides a way to look at complex issues and test potential policies, helping to spot unforeseen negative impacts and seeing how people might react to the policy in practice. 

Fuel poverty – or energy poverty as it is known outside the UK – is exactly the type of complex issue that benefits from this kind of approach. Dr Lucie Middlemiss, Associate Professor of Sustainability at the University of Leeds, was the first to coin the phrase ‘lived experience of fuel poverty’ in a 2015 journal article in which she analysed the experiences of households around the UK, revealing the specific challenges that they faced in accessing energy, and how this affected their daily lives. Her research looks at the impacts of environmental problems and policy on people’s lives, particularly in relation to how people access and consume resources. 

Dr Middlemiss has been working in the field since 2011 and has carried out research on energy poverty in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Belgium. Her lived experience work has opened up the field to more social explanations of the problem, documenting how people’s relationships with each other, and with important stakeholders such as landlords and energy companies, can affect their ability to cope.

When she saw the Scottish Government’s plans to research the lived experience of fuel poverty in the country, Dr Middlemiss offered her services and now sits on the project’s research advisory group.

Dr Nadine Andrews, Team Leader in Housing and Regeneration Research for the Scottish Government, says: “It’s been extremely useful to have Lucie bring her expertise to the project and provide external validation that we were on the right course. The suggestions she’s made have helped us improve our research materials, pull more insights from the data and strengthen the report overall.”

The latest figures from 2018 show that 619,000 households in Scotland – 25 percent of the total – were estimated to be in fuel poverty. The Scottish Government’s aims to reduce this to no more than 5 percent by 2040.

Coping strategies

The research, carried out by Ipsos Mori, involved in-depth interviews with 40 of these households in different parts of the country. Care was taken to ensure diverse mix of participants which broadly reflected the characteristics of households in fuel poverty. The sample included a mix of household, tenure, dwelling and fuel types, rural and urban locations, and households with members with a chronic health condition or disability. For example, the experience of families in the Outer Hebrides, where the main fuel is peat, is very different from those living in the centre of Glasgow. The research was able to identify common coping strategies and see how policies – such as the introduction of smart meters – might have an impact.

“Within one household, fuel poverty can be the result of lots of different issues coming together, such as housing tenure, low income, health issues or social relationships,” explains Dr Middlemiss. “Using a lived experience approach allows you get that richer picture, which can help to explain why some policies don’t have the impact expected. Quantitative studies tell you the number of people in fuel poverty, but you need this extra detail if you want to make those numbers fall.”

The report based on the research is going through its final stages before publication, and will be used to help the Scottish Government develop its fuel poverty strategy to meet its 2040 target.

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