5 February 2012

Cold Comfort Farm or Some Like it Hot?

By Peter Lanyon

In the Committee Rooms of the House of Commons last Tuesday, with the outside temperatures below zero, people sat with their suit jackets off. Throughout the gothic splendour of our mother of Parliaments, with its echoing chambers, soaring ceilings and interminable staircases, the climate seemed unchangingly summery. A few weeks ago, in one of the maze of rooms in the Westminster Conference Centre, Energy Minister Charles Hendry was pink-cheeked with an excess of the commodity he presides over, as he parried questions from Non-Government Organisations on our nuclear future.

Meanwhile in Norwich, Age UK Norfolk is working flat out both to help people to cope with the combination of cold weather, energy-inefficient homes and rising fuel costs, and to publicise as widely as possible that Age UK is able to provide real and prompt assistance. The government made funds available just before Christmas to relieve the plight of those who cannot keep themselves warm, and Age UK is able to cut the bureaucracy to a minimum to distribute these funds directly and swiftly to where they are needed. To seek advice or help contact Age UK Norfolk on 01603 787111, or elsewhere ring 0800 169 65 65, or try http://www.ageuk.org.uk/about-us/local-partners/ and click on Your Local Age UK.

Meanwhile again, last autumn British Gas raised gas prices by 18 per cent and electricity by 16 per cent, EDF increased charges by 15.4 per cent and 4.5 per cent respectively and SSE by 18 per cent and 5 per cent. Last month after wide public outrage, they all announced price cuts; but the level of the decreases – averaging a scrooge-like 5 per cent – provoked further anger.

So what is going on? At one end of the “comfort zone” scale this winter, people with reduced immunity, impaired mobility and lessened ability to sense cold are at risk of reaching the state of chill when their minds become numbed. Like that, they’re less than ever able to steer themselves towards ways of getting warmer, even if they can afford them. At the other end, literally in the corridors of power and in the boardrooms of big business, inequality luxuriates in the heat.

Beyond stating the obvious - that this is capitalism at work – I’m not sure what is going on. Yet it was pure luck that this winter we didn’t have the early freeze-up of 2010, for the government’s hand-out mentioned above would have been too late to mitigate that. The timing of it looks more political than to solve real problems of hardship. So let us look at what the government itself thinks about “Fuel Poverty”.

Their strategy defines a fuel poor household as one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use and to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth. Adequacy in that sense is defined as 21°C in the living room and 18°C in other occupied rooms. That sounds alright, doesn’t it, for one assumes that those temperatures are sensible, or otherwise it wouldn’t be government strategy, would it?

Wait a minute though. 21°C is the recommended temperature for a sick room, yet our leaders are suggesting we all need to live at that temperature. The Health and Safety Executive, not renowned for being harsh, says work places should be at least at 16°C to enable us to work without extra clothing. So the government has set a level of warmth, that we should all expect our living rooms to reach, a whole 5°C higher than a place fit to work in. Otherwise, say our leaders, we are entitled to feel hard done by and deserving of compassion and help.

As I write, the temperature on my desk here at home outside Norwich is 11.5°C. I’ve a lot of clothes on so I’m OK, though my fingers are a little chilly, and if I felt like breaking the thread of this I’d stop and put mittens on. When we cook supper and when the gas heating comes on later, the temperature will probably go up to 15, maybe 16°C. We couldn’t get anywhere up to 21°C if we ran the heating night and day, although the bungalow has wall and loft insulation that was recently checked. But we wouldn’t even try to reach that temperature. It’s winter, for Goodness’ sake. And the planet’s in a climate change crisis already. And we couldn’t afford it anyway. So we are in fuel poverty. What utter rubbish!

Unknown to most of us, last year Professor John Hills was appointed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to undertake a review of Fuel Poverty. He produced an interim report in October; it was publicly consulted upon rather quietly for less than a month, and is due to report finally later this year. Nowhere in the 192 pages of the interim report can I find a mention of what a reasonable standard of domestic heating might be, and there were no questions on it in the consultation of the public. It’s all about the money side of it – oiling the wheels of capitalism.

What are we to deduce from this? If government is simply inept and not fit for purpose, that’s bad enough. If it’s deliberately raising people’s expectations in order to harness us all to some sort of effete dependancy on an irrational level of comfort that boosts industrial growth in the short term, that’s evil – especially if it exacerbates climate change, as it must by causing us all to burn more fossil fuel and hack more uranium out of the rocks.

As a retired biologist, I wonder where this is taking us. Species survive by adapting to their environment. When adaptation involves brain work to develop things like housing and the manipulation of fire to protect us from some aspects of the environment, these devices must still fit into general planetary systems, otherwise we are merely putting off the crisis a little, ensuring that,when it comes, it will be more severe and take more species with us to extinction. There is no way that this country can aspire to heating all our living rooms to 21°C without sending climate change through the roof. So what is the government up to?

Log stack in East Anglia coppice wood (Charlotte Du Cann)


  1. VERY good question Peter. In my view the climate change effort from the government (and not just the current coalition, I'm referring to all governments) is something of a sham, because - call me a cynic, but - their priority is and always will be, money and power - over ethics, and over life. I recently read a quote from somebody whose name I don't recall, with the gist being 'once in positions of power, people do not act to benefit the people but themselves' (wish I could find the exact quote).

    Looking to our household, we haven't had any heating on at all since about a year ago, in large part due to cost, but also because we do not want our family to be too dependant on it, we are increasingly living Transitionally (www.transitionnorwich.org). Currently it is about 0 degrees, I'm sitting under four duvets with three pairs of socks, two jumpers and hat and wrist warmers as I am getting over a rotten virus. I am what I would term 'young' while others might use 'middle-aged', I'm in general good health and know I will recover. I also am very aware that I have to some extent made a choice not to use heating, but many others will die in these circumstances because they are elderly, disabled, or cannot afford the luxury of heating their home to ANY degree and eat at the same time. Many still do not have insulated or energy efficient homes despite the work of organisations like Age UK, for whom I have a lot of respect, they and others do incredible work with the very little they are given.

    Nobody in this government lives in these conditions, nor do they care to relate to them. When it comes to climate change, I'm afraid selfishly short-sighted politicians are going to let us down, and really, we shouldn't be that surprised.

  2. This is an interesting piece and reveals the total lack of understanding in government cicles as to how the majority live. I find that a reasonable indoor warmth is achieved by a steady 15-16 degrees for rooms in which I am sitting and working with a much lower background heat fine in bedrooms.

    Im sure Age UK is generally excellent and cost effective, but I was amazed to hear that they plan to send out advice to 'vulnerable' households about how to know when it is going to be cold and enclosing two thermometers. Surely they could save money by giving up on this nonsense and instead lobbying for govt intervention to lower fuel prices, and encouraging reporting on the misery of vulnerable households?


  3. A snippet of good news to add to this story: Tomorrow I start a new job working in Lowestoft on implementing a strand of the CESP project. This initiative of the previous government obliges energy companies of a certain size to spend some of their profits installing energy-saving measures like loft and wall insulation into homes in some of the more deprived areas of the country. Householders sign-up voluntarily and incur none of the cost. This looks like a conspicuously scarce example of joined-up thinking in government policy.

  4. Anyone who wants to explore some of the politics, geophysics and economics of gas fracking will enjoy this podcast (Arthur E. Berman, Petroleum Geologist: Magical Thinking and Fracking | Energy Bulletin http://bit.ly/ybQNrr) What prompted me to post here is the section about 33 minutes in where they comment on the business case for ** stimulating demand ** for what has become a very cheap (overproduced) resource in North America. A sickening exhibition of capitalist market manipulation which flies in the face of climate change and rational consumer behaviour.