Sowing seeds: the energy advisers fighting to keep people warm this winter 4

Sowing seeds: the energy advisers fighting to keep people warm this winter

It’s 11am and before he starts his long restaurant shift, Ioan has a couple of hours to play with his three-year-old son, among whose main loves are his toy cars and Spider-Man.

Since his youngest son, Ianis, was just a couple of months old he’s suffered from  asthma that has, on occasion, seen him hospitalised. Ioan knew what was wrong immediately. “It happened to me too when I was a child,” he explains.

But he and his wife struggled to get medical professionals to take them seriously in Scotland – resorting to returning to their home country of Romania and paying for a private doctor, whose diagnosis was finally accepted back in Glasgow.

Meanwhile they did what they could to keep the symptoms at bay. “One important thing was to make sure the house was not damp because that makes things much worse,” Ioan says.

Sowing seeds: the energy advisers fighting to keep people warm this winter 5

The 22-year-old father – who had previously lived in a flat with a prepayment meter – didn’t understand that because he was not providing his energy company with readings, his bills were under-estimated. Earlier this year it emerged the family owed £2,200 – an impossible sum to pay on their household income.

Sowing seeds: the energy advisers fighting to keep people warm this winter 6
Ioan’s energy use is high because his youngest son is asthmatic. Picture by Eoin Carey.

Friends put him in touch with South Seeds – a community organisation in Glasgow’s Southside neighbourhood of Govanhill – which provides an energy advice service. Advisor Agnes Berner sourced grants to cut the debt in half and helped him set up an affordable payment plan. “It was such a big relief,” he says.

Rising energy bills have been the story of 2022. The monthly increases in both gas and electricity prices in April 2022 alone were by far the largest ever recorded since 1988.

Meanwhile the profits of many energy companies are eye-watering. Last month Shell announced profits of over £8bn from July to September and last week BP announced profits of £7bn for the same period.

Estimates on how stark the impact will be vary, but some claim they will push up to two-thirds of UK households into fuel poverty by January 2023. That’s despite the help of the UK Government’s Energy Price Guarantee – which means unit prices will be capped until April 2023 – and an additional £400 from the energy bills support scheme.

What’s less widely reported, is the devastating impact that cold homes will have on the health of communities up and down Scotland. 

According to a report by the University College London’s Institute of Health Equity increasing fuel poverty is going to turbo-charge health inequalities. That means people who can’t afford gas and electricity are statistically more likely to suffer from health conditions – or even die younger – than those who can.

Living in a cold home – more likely to be damp and mouldy – can cause and worsen respiratory conditions, cardiovascular diseases, poor mental health, dementia, hypothermia and problems with childhood development, they explain. 

Govanhill’s South Seeds can’t offer the structural changes they say are so urgently needed. 

But what it can offer – including providing empowering energy advice, sourcing financial support and advocating for people when things go wrong – is help keeping people warm… or getting them back on supply.

We’re now seeing people whose fuel bills are higher than their benefits.

Poppy Ives, South Seeds energy advisor

Though there are Scotland-wide phone based advice services, this type of face-to-face, high street shop front service is unusual. But it’s getting results.

From September 2021 – September 2022 their clients have benefited to the tune of £118,441 in emergency vouchers, supplier refunds, good will payments and hardship funding with a further £16,050 provided in the form of warm home discounts.

They’ve held 2,056 appointments in the time period. And it’s getting busier. Recently they’ve helped people who’ve been forced to use the local swimming pool showers because they have no hot water at home, and seen people using candles for lighting at night. The situation is stark.

“We’re now seeing people whose fuel bills are higher than their benefits,” says Poppy Ives, who works alongside Agnes in the busy office at the top of Govanhill’s Victoria Road. 

Sowing seeds: the energy advisers fighting to keep people warm this winter 7
Poppy and Agnes, energy advisers from South Seeds in Govanhill are seeing people unable to afford heating and lighting. Photo by Eoin Carey.

Already this morning the team have applied for fuel vouchers for several people who can’t afford to top-up. Some of these appointments have been squeezed into an already bulging diary. There’s a month-long wait for non-urgent cases.

Across Scotland, fuel vouchers are now being distributed at record rates. In 2021 the Fuel Bank Foundation provided emergency vouchers to help 27,248 Scots. By October this year that number was 48,514, more than half of them children. 

Matthew Cole, head of the charity, explains: “As we head into winter our fuel bank centres across the country are bracing themselves for a spike in demand. Our fear is that a lot of people will start rationing heat, hot water, light and food, just to survive.”

This morning Agnes and Poppy are on their way to visit a family who are having to do just that. They don’t understand why their meter is running out of credit so fast.

In this neighbourhood 27 percent of residents have prepayment metres, according to the most recently available data. The Scottish average is just 16 percent but that rises to as high as 69 percent in some deprived neighbourhoods. The most affluent have none.

Poppy is increasingly aware of warrants being granted to fit prepayment meters where people have run-up debts. Comparison website Uswitch claims 60,000 new meters were installed across the UK in the six months to March – it’s now likely to be higher and campaigners such as Energy Action Scotland for people to be given better protections. 

Prepayment meters cost significantly more. By September Citizens Advice UK had seen 18,000 people unable to top-up their prepayment metres so this family are far from alone. 

Sowing seeds: the energy advisers fighting to keep people warm this winter 8
Citizens Advice UK is reporting record numbers are unable to afford to top-up electricity meters. Photo by iStock/Evgen_Prozhyrko

Once inside their tenement flat Agnes takes a look at the meter and finds that from a £5 top-up, £1.60 went to paying back the emergency credit and £1.90 to a previous debt. 

It leaves just over £1 of credit after the standing charge is deducted. Standing charges build up if a household doesn’t top-up for a while and the price is different across the country. A family in London will currently pay about £62 less a year in standing charges on average than one in the north of Scotland. 

Then there’s debt. Poppy explains: “This family owes £500 and so every week money from the top-up goes towards the debt.” She can apply for hardship money to ensure they can stay on supply, she says, offering another appointment in the office.

Before we go, one woman living there shows me a bag of medicines she takes – antibiotics, painkillers and anti-inflammatories. She mimes a shiver and runs her hand over the cold radiator. “This is not good,” she says.

Concerns about heating and health come up repeatedly amongst South Seeds clients. James has osteoarthritis in his knees and hips, angina and such severe depression he’s tried to take his own life twice. He’s back on medication now and doing much better.

The worry about fuel bills is not helping. “It’s really bad for my mental health because to save myself getting really cold I end up going to my bed at 4 or 5pm,” he explains. 

I’ve been awarded £320 by the energy company. So with that money I’d be able to start turning the heating on for at least a couple of hours.

James, Govanhill resident

South Seeds have helped him apply for a warmer homes discount. “They’ve told me I’d been awarded £320 by the energy company,” he says. “So with that money I’d be able to start turning those on for at least a couple of hours.” It’s a simple but life changing fix.

Nearby lives Bob Nelson, an electric wheelchair user whose electricity use is high. He has arthritis and has suffered multiple heart attacks, mini-strokes and survived cancer three times. 

Energy bills are paid by fuel direct – payment go directly from his benefits to the provider – but had not increased for years leading to debt of £1,200.

Poppy finally managed to track down fuel direct customer service and agreed a rate that should make Bob’s situation easier to manage. Meanwhile he’s used food banks just to get by. 

It’s often very difficult to get an energy company call handler to even open a complaint.

Agnes Berner, South Seeds energy advisor

South Seeds know they are making a difference by “meeting people where they are”, listening and offering a “personalised service”, explains manager, Lucy Gillie. It even extends to walking clients to other recommended services to help them find extra support. 

But there is also frustration that the energy companies are not more proactive – and that energy regulator Ofgem is not more able to hold their feet to the fire. 

“It’s often very difficult to get an energy company call handler to even open a complaint,” Agnes says.

In July, Ofgem demanded improvements from five energy suppliers on issues such as debt, staff training, and direct debit increases. Poppy experienced that this has improved those areas. 

“It shows that Ofgem’s actions can be effective,” she says. “Unfortunately, it seems like they are struggling to fully assess all the complex problems customers experience when communicating with their energy suppliers.”

Energy advice agency South Seeds
South Seeds is right offer face-to-face help on Govanhill’s high street. Photo by Eoin Carey

An Ofgem spokesperson said its “priority is to protect consumers” and claimed suppliers must be “proactively making contact to identify if a customer is in payment difficulty, assessing repayments on a customer’s ability to pay and ensuring debt management activities are done in a fair and reasonable way”.

“We closely monitor compliance of this and we have taken robust enforcement action as a result of the failings we have found,” they added.

But that’s far from the only issue, according to the South Seeds team. Other structure changes – from funding for retrofit homes to investing in public spaces and paying everyone fairly – is what is really needed, they claim.

The Institute of Health Equity report says immediate recommendations include local health providers better recognising the impact of cold homes and working with agencies like South Seeds.

Report co-author Tammy Boyle acknowledges the scale of the challenge can be difficult to comprehend. “I truly think we are moving into uncharted territory,” she says. “We can’t quantify the impact on health inequality but it will have a huge impact.”

But she believes there are steps we can take. “Every year there are millions of pounds in unclaimed benefits so we need to make sure people apply for everything they are due.”

Local councils should also allocate emergency repair budgeting to warmer homes programmes, she adds fixing boilers, broken windows and holes in the walls, she claims, and health services should work more closely with third sector partners. 

Back at Ioan’s house, playtime with his son is over. But his problems with gas and electricity bills are not. He was paying £40 a week a few months ago – now that’s at £80, just under half of the £170 he earns in the restaurant. He’s looking for another job. ”That’s really hard too,” he says.

South Seeds is applying for a hardship grant, which they hope will help the family through the winter. But as prices continue to rise, the future still feels uncertain. 

Images: Eoin Carey

This story is the first in a year-long solutions journalism project between Greater Govanhill Magazine and The Ferret. It is published in tandem with the Sunday National.

Mind the health gap will collaborate with local communities to report on the way inequality leads to health disadvantages and shorter lives.

Before starting this piece we consulted with local agencies in Govanhill, health experts across Scotland and surveyed Ferret and Greater Govanhill readers online. They highlighted the importance of the link between warm homes and health. With energy prices rising it felt urgent to launch this topic first. 

But this is just the start.

Get in touch with your suggestions for what we should look at next – on fuel poverty, on access to GPs, on health and gender…or whatever else you need to need to take on next! You can drop-in to our brand-new Community Newsroom or contact us at: contact@theferret.scot

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