Cold Comfort in Oxfordshire

heat or eatThe first frost of autumn may be a relief to those of us in hot-flush middle-age with warm places to live and work. But for those in fuel poverty, it signals the beginning of months of anxiety, ill-health and misery.

Alison Webster, Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford, previews an event taking place in Oxford on 18 November.

Fuel poverty is not an abstract issue. It’s a matter of life and death.

In the freezing weather of 2012, 31,000 people in the UK died unnecessarily – 10,000 of those deaths were due to cold homes. Living in a cold home affects children’s educational attainment, emotional wellbeing, and resilience. In adults, it is associated with elevated levels of heart attacks and strokes; it exacerbates colds and flu, rheumatism and arthritis, and severely undercuts mental health. Social isolation is increased (you can’t invite friends back to a home like a fridge), and elderly people are particularly vulnerable. It’s not a small problem either: almost 4 million households in the UK are officially classed as being in fuel poverty. This can only get worse as gas and electricity prices continue to rise. For increasing numbers the choice this winter will be to ‘heat or eat.’

7.6 million energy customers (that’s 16% of the total) have a prepayment meter (‘PPM’), for which the price per unit outstrips that enjoyed by wealthier customers. 1 in 6 PPM users typically cuts themselves off each year – for days, weeks or months. ‘Ordinary’ customers benefit from a moratorium on disconnecting vulnerable people, but this doesn’t apply to those on PPMs.

On 18th November in Oxford, representatives of churches will be gathering to share ideas about how to respond to fuel poverty. Entitled ‘Heat of Eat’, the event will hear from the national campaigning body Church Action on Poverty; from local authority representatives, and from other advisory organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Oxford’s Consumer Empowerment Partnership.

To find out more and book your place at this free event click here

We will explore: who is affected by fuel poverty in our own communities? What more should Government and the energy companies be doing to tackle it? What practical support is available to people to help reduce their bills, or to help with energy efficiency measures? We will hear from imaginative local initiatives. For instance, the tiny village church in Oxfordshire that distributes Winter Warmth parcels to vulnerable local people at Christmas, including (amongst other thoughtfully produced hand-made items), a £40 cash component; the bulk fuel-buying schemes that address high fuel prices in rural areas; the not-for-profit energy company that works to combat fuel poverty through its imaginative pricing structure. In short, we will be exploring how our churches can be warm places and spaces of welcome in our currently frigid and punishing context of austerity.

Alison Webster is the Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford.

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