Why the Oldham eco scheme tackling fuel poverty should be adopted nationwide

A ground-breaking Council backed Eco scheme in Oldham, Greater Manchester, which has helped more than 2,000 people out of fuel poverty and achieved a 30 per cent reduction in A&E admissions in its first year, could provide the template for other local authorities nationwide to follow, writes Nigel Banks, Group Sustainability Director at national housing and regeneration specialist, Keepmoat.

Keepmoat was appointed in 2013 to deliver the three-year Warm Homes Oldham scheme, a three-way funded partnership between Oldham Council, the Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Oldham Housing Investment Partnership (OHIP) to reduce the number of people in the borough living in cold homes and to help tackle fuel poverty. DECC estimate that around 16% of households (14,000) in Oldham are living in fuel poverty.

The Warm Homes Oldham (WHO) project was set up to help people at risk of the health impacts that fuel poverty can cause, and those struggling with rising energy bills. It acknowledged that there can be serious consequences for the health and wellbeing of those living in cold homes. But by investing upfront in preventative measures it was hoped that cost savings would be realised by the partners through the improved health and wellbeing of the people supported.

What does the scheme entail?

The scheme (WHO) was open to any tenure of household, but mainly targetted private and private rented homes, to provide a range of physical energy efficiency improvements to properties using ECO grant funding, however the help actually went much further than pure property improvements.

Originally the target was set with the aim of bringing a household out of fuel poverty (i.e. their spend below 10% of their income), however we found that significant numbers of homes were found to be under heating their properties therefore they didn’t qualify as such, as being defined to be in ‘fuel poverty’. In addition we found in some cases that it was impossible to bring certain homes out of fuel poverty due to their low income levels, however we were able to make significant differences to their homes and lifestyle. For that reason it was therefore agreed to also include households where their fuel poverty level was significantly reduced (by over a third).

The revised predicted fuel bill to heat the home properly had to be within reach of the current owner (within 10% of the current bill), and if it was, an action plan was proposed and enacted for that property. The plan then established what actions were needed to lift the household out of fuel poverty – i.e. property improvements, income maximisation work or behaviour change (or a mixture of all).

To meet the action plan targets, the Keepmoat project team offered a range of support to help the households out of fuel poverty. In terms of physical energy efficiency improvements to properties using ECO grant funding supplied by EDF Energy , this included the provision of loft and cavity wall insulation, solid wall insulation, hard to treat cavity insulation and new boilers and heating controls.

Every household that was referred to the service or wanted support received an individual assessment to identify what type of support they needed to get out of fuel poverty. Residents who weren’t classed as in fuel poverty could also access support through the EDF Energy ECO funding grant improvements scheme.

A part of our role and remit was also to provide behaviour change advice and training to householders on how to use their household energy more efficiently or understand their heating controls. This is an inherent part of the process and was offered whether or not the resident needs property improvements.

Working in partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau, a third strand was also to look at how we could maximise the income of those households, helping them to get out of fuel debt (by applying for trust fund grants), and giving help and advice on bills/tariff switches, getting off prepayment meters and benefits checks.

Evaluating the success of the first year

In year one of the project, WHO worked with 586 households. Of these, 434 households were brought out of fuel poverty, accounting for 1,074 people, meaning the Warm Homes Oldham scheme and its delivery partners met their target for year 1 of 1000.

This involved the installation of 364 boilers, 80 external wall insulation applications and 19 cavity wall and loft insulation applications. EDF Energy provided over £1.2 million of ECO funding was brought into these households through the scheme’s utility grants, and £45,700 of extra benefits secured through the benefit checks which Keepmoat facilitated and advice on switching energy tariffs helped households save £33,000. In addition £30,446 worth of trust fund grants for new boilers was secured for homes that were not on benefits but had poor heating systems.

Where consent was given we tracked whether the project had reduced costs to the health sector by remotely monitoring NHS interventions. The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield University was commissioned to independently evaluate the impact of the scheme, and an initial report looked at the pre and post questionnaire responses and outcomes of the scheme.

The general picture from the initial evaluation in year one is one of statistically significant change in almost all key change variables, including improvements in fuel poverty, general health and wellbeing, life satisfaction, and condition of homes:

  • 96 per cent of respondents agreed that their home was easier to heat as a result of their involvement in the project
  • 84 per cent agreed that they now spend less on their heating
  • Three-quarters of participants will move out of fuel poverty as a result of the initiative
  • 60 per cent of respondents with a physical health problem felt that the initiative had a positive impact on their health
  • Four-fifths reported that the project had a positive impact on their general health and wellbeing
  • Almost all (48 out of 50) of those who self-reported as being at ‘high risk’ of mental illness on completion of the General Health Questionnaire moved to ‘low risk’ following the initiative.

Despite these results being from just year one of the three year project, the results are impressive and highlight its impact, not just from a physical improvement/measure viewpoint, but also on healthcare usage before and after the WHO intervention looking at health and wellbeing, GP visits and A&E admissions.

CCG have also done their own analysis from a sample of nearly 800 people that were supported through the scheme, A&E attendances for the participants had gone down by 2% and emergency hospital admissions by 32% – with an estimated saving of nearly £40,000 to the CCG. Five individuals had their GP and prescription use analysed and this showed that total GP appointments went down by 8% while the cost of drugs prescribed increased by 14% – this may be due to the patients better managing their conditions at home. It should be noted that these are very early findings based on a limited number of cases, but it’s very promising pending full evaluation.

Already this gives an initial indication that the project has already been successful across financial, health and wellbeing, and comfort criteria. The health service calculates it will save £250 a year in reduced hospital admissions and social costs for every person lifted out of fuel poverty, and the council hopes each household will save around £450 a year in fuel bills and energy efficiency savings, as well as drawing on the energy company green levy money.

Some potential wider benefits of the project include improving the physical housing stock, maximising the income of residents, promoting behaviour change in relation to energy use, improving health and wellbeing, improving educational achievement, improving partnerships and savings on energy bills for residents which in turn means more disposable income to spend in the local economy.

This year’s evaluation (due in September) will involve Warm Homes Oldham analysing the health service use of the households to compare 12 month’s data before and after to see what impact has been made. We are now coming to the end of year 2 and we are on track to help a further 1200 people out of fuel poverty in the Oldham area.

Lessons learned and best practice

There is widely reported pressure on the health service, and in particular A&E due to emergency admissions, and the Warm Homes Oldham scheme is a good example of what the health sector can achieve by working in partnership in the local community, to prevent A&E admissions. It’s a template that other local authorities could and should be adopting nationwide. After all, isn’t prevention better than cure?

Denis Gizzi, Managing Director of Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group, said:

“We are delighted with the success Warm Homes Oldham has had in its first year. It is widely recognised that fuel poverty can and does have a huge impact on people’s health. Therefore, it is extremely positive that not only have we met our target of bringing people out of fuel poverty but also the people of Oldham have experienced noticeable improvements to their health as a result.

“This project is a real success story for keeping people healthy and out of hospital and I would definitely encourage other organisations to work in partnership to achieve healthier communities.”

Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health said:

“Living in cold conditions is a significant factor in bringing on a range of illnesses including mental health stresses as well as respiratory problems and others. This scheme is making a real difference to families in fuel poverty in Oldham to help them warm their homes and stay well.”

Councillor Dave Hibbert, Oldham Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing, Planning and Transport, said:

“Since Warm Homes Oldham started we’ve been able to help to reduce the number of residents who have been living in cold homes with outdated heating systems by utilising our partnership funding.

“This funding then brought in more than £1.2 million of utility funding grants from energy firm EDF Energy during the first year.

“The results of these interventions have seen not only a welcome improvement in residents’ health and wellbeing but also a significant reduction in their fuel bills.

“The scheme is a good example of how we are working co-operatively with our partners not only quality assured property improvements, but also useful advice and practical help with other things such as dealing with fuel debt and benefits advice.”

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