National Energy Action Conference – Our Main Takeaways
With increased debt on the horizon thanks to April’s £900 energy price hike, leaving an estimated 8.4 million homes in fuel poverty, it has never been more important time to gather and discuss ways to tackle the ongoing energy and cost of living crisis and support individuals in hardship.
That is why our Client Solutions team joined National Energy Action at their long-awaited 2023 conference, “Tackling the Energy Crisis.” Based locally for us in the centre of Birmingham, the topics of discussion and the passion to work collaboratively to help were quite literally right up our street.
Both the speakers and conversations we had at our stand were enlightening and it is great to see people in a room talking about urgent change for the most vulnerable, whom our team talk to on a daily basis.
Here are our top 7 takeaways and talking points from the conference.
#1 Innovative long-term affordability responses are vital – as is simplified funding
An issue repeatedly mentioned was that current support are mainly “sticking plasters”, short term solutions that address the symptoms and not the cause. Speaker Josh Buckland referenced the current government support solutions as valuing “expediency over excellence”, however time should no longer be the constraint.
This was further exemplified by funding being described as “output rather than outcome-based”, with more sustainable long term solutions lacking funding. Whilst discussions occur around the challenge between universal and shallow vs. targeted and deep support, what is clearly needed is simplified funding mechanisms to end the postcode lottery of support and allow for a fluidity of schemes to exist.
Income maximisation is a powerful financial sustainability tool, with Auriga realising an average of over £2,200 per person through welfare benefit advice and support, charitable grants, and more. Putting actual money in people’s pockets and teaching them invaluable budgeting and financial wellbeing advice is a key avenue of long term support, however, the issue of deficit budgets is making our advisers’ job more of a challenge.
The energy crisis and broader cost of living crisis is not going away anytime soon. Solutions need to be looking into the future. Sticking plasters are only good for small wounds, temporary solutions for minor cuts and scrapes. When money is bleeding out of the homes of the most vulnerable, and even 2 income households are struggling with deficit budgets, that is no longer a minor injury – that is a burst artery. Systemic change to the type of response and funding structure is needed to ensure that people are not just existing but living, not waiting for another temporary sticking plaster to tide them over another day.
#2 Proactive Identification is a must
With more people struggling with the cost of living, and that number set to rise with the reduction in government support in April, the demographic of vulnerable people is also expanding. As a whole, it was agreed that the sector needs to improve the identification of those at risk of fuel poverty, beyond merely relying on welfare benefits as an indicator.
Several speakers at the conference pointed out that low incomes could be identified through connections with the DWP, the NHS, and through smart meters which can potentially be used to monitor self-disconnection. Overall, there are many ‘canaries in the mine’ so to speak to proactively identify and engage consumers who are experiencing affordability challenges.
This is something we are already exploring with our network, looking at ways we can work together to identify early warning signs of financial difficulty.
The need for effective and efficient data sharing was another topic of discussion, one which we are front and centre of. Through our Essential Services Network engine, we are providing innovative technology that connects the Priority Services Registers of the utility sector to the wider third sector, aiding in both identifying and supporting individuals, through a single point of contact.
#3 Accessible information must be front and centre
Whilst innovation in technology and smart meters were mentioned throughout the conference, what was also addressed – and perhaps not resolved – was the matter of accessibility.
The support developed cannot leave behind those who are digitally excluded or living off the grid or in rural areas which can limit access to both physical support and access to information. Whilst engagement might be trickier and more time consuming in these communities, those support roots must be planted. Agencies like Rural Action Derbyshire are front and centre of this fight.
The information produced must also be accessible to every user, with policies and schemes translated into practical advice that is clear and usable. We suggest that a central resource and information point would be beneficial for the distribution of understandable information about new and existing policies, schemes and support networks. We created Ask Bill for this reason. It is not a new issue – more and more households are experiencing difficulty for the first time and need somewhere to turn with all easily accessible in one place. Bill is mainly focused on the utility sector at present but there is scope to expand this further.
We at Auriga are also looking at ways to expand our reach into the communities we serve by delivering face to face support and raising awareness for other schemes at community events like warm hubs. Auriga are also members of the Digital Poverty Alliance, doing what we can to help those who are in digital poverty.
#4 More pressure is needed on suppliers
With record profits reported by Shell and other energy companies recently, it is no surprise that calls for energy suppliers to do more were rampant during the conference. The burden of support for the energy crisis is rapidly overspilling into other sectors and causing a huge imbalance of supply and demand.
Calls for an energy social tariff are also rife, with 30,000 people recently signing a petition and the government and Ofgem echoing those calls. This would help those struggling to pay their bills by introducing a cap on the costs they pay.
At present, the highest burden is on the most vulnerable, with higher standing charges for prepayment (or pay-as-you-go) meters. Charity, Fair By Design, were in attendance, who are passionate about ending the poverty premium, which are the extra costs people on low incomes and in poverty pay for essential products and services. With worrying news of prepayment meters being forced into vulnerable people’s homes, as well as smart meters being turned into smart prepayment meters without consumer’s knowledge, there is definite need for change within the sector for those at the extreme end of financial vulnerability.
Minimum standards of customer service in the energy sector also need addressing. Frontline delegates talked of struggles to reach energy suppliers. This has a knock-on effect for the advice sector as more of their time is absorbed waiting on hold rather than taking another call during a phenomenal demand for help. If they are experiencing a higher-than-normal volume of calls for a long period of time, they are no longer higher than normal – they are the normal.
As previously mentioned, data sharing between suppliers and the wider utility and third sector is also urgently needed. Whilst the individual Priority Services Registers are part of the solution, they are a silo of information that can be vital for other organisations to step in and help. Auriga have kickstarted this process through our Essential Services Network engine, connecting Thames Water, UK Power Networks and London Fire Brigade in an innovative data sharing process.
#5 Homes need to be more energy efficient
It has been widely reported that the UK has some of the most inefficient housing stock in Europe, with heating of homes representing 14% of total carbon emissions. With rising costs of energy coinciding with a drive towards Net Zero, the conference highlighted that these messages can easily be mutually beneficial.
The retrofit agenda, however, needs reform – skilled workers, robust supply chains and more effective funding models. Our partner Agility Eco’s CEO James Sommerville said “ECO4 is a struggle to deliver… They’re getting a great outcome taking them out of Fuel Poverty… But it’s not helping the millions of households needing help.”
The most expensive interventions are needed in the most low-income homes who also tend to live in less energy efficient homes, meaning that any answers to energy efficiency must target worst first to create a fair and affordable path to Net Zero.
EPC ratings were also targeted as not fit for purpose, requiring an overhaul to ensure the UK’s housing stock improves to benefit tenants in both social and private housing as well as in line with the Net Zero goal.
Tackling cold homes has a positive knock-on effect to the wider society. With a warmer home, less people need the NHS with health conditions caused or exacerbated by cold, mould or leaks. A warmer, more efficient home means less money spent on energy bills – more to be spent on healthy food, clothing, and generally living life.
#6 The importance of ‘living’ experience cannot be understated
One of the biggest takeaways was the reinforcement of including ‘living’ experience at every stage of support development. ‘Living’ experience, a term coined by Dominic Watters, Food Foundation Ambassador and speaker in the first session, highlights that hardships rarely just end.
“This isn’t my lived experience, this is what I’m actually living. It doesn’t reflect the urgency of inequalities. That hardship hasn’t been completed and lived experience doesn’t show that it is an ongoing issue.”
– Dominic Watters
He also eloquently highlighted the disconnect between those with influence and ‘living’ experience. These voices need to be front and centre in discussions to make sure any developed support actually takes root and is effective in both the short and long term.
Taking heed of these voices brings into focus what is actually happening in the real world. Many people are “existing” rather than living right now, a direct quote from an NEA case study, contemplating ending their lives due to the financial strain and knock-on effect of unaffordable costs. We must, as a society, think about the standards of living and what minimum standard we are willing to accept.
Frontline voices also need to be heard and tapped into as a resource. As demand for advice swells, many advisers own ‘living’ experience can be powerful; they can amplify voices and see patterns and holes in support, they know what does and does not work.
#7 The cost of living crisis is closer to home than we realise
Whilst most of us are feeling the effects of the cost of living crisis, it must be reinforced that it is impacting some more than others. Income is a spectrum. The NEA conference highlighted for us the importance of looking after our people. It is easy to fall into the ‘us’ and ‘them’ trap. This dichotomy of language ignores the fact that the income levels of people struggling is getting higher. “They” are in our offices, “they” are our colleagues, our friends.
Support from employers is also key, especially those in the advice sector, who are seeing more and more complex cases and heartbreakingly difficult calls. A comprehensive and confidential Employee Assistance Programme and additional training are just some of the ways suggested, which our people at Auriga already have in place and benefit greatly from.
All in all, it was a very insightful conference, filled with productive conversations despite worrying data and difficult but all too common ‘living’ experiences. We hope these talks are translated effectively into meaningful action and will continue to work together with our partners to change lives every day.