An Unusual Update – Spring 2020

Given the times we are living in, there’s a lot in this Update — and a lot to be done.

The sections are:

    1. The health emergency
    2. Ways forward from this crisis (our own initiatives and others’)
    3. Cladding and insulation
    4. District heating

The formatting on our website isn’t amazing – you can also read this in a google doc here

Changing times

The weather is improving, but for millions, finding money for fuel bills continues to be a crisis, with more energy needed when people are stuck at home, while many incomes are reaching rock bottom and debts are mounting up.  People are rationing not only heat and electricity but food.  Instead of 2 for 1 offers, shoppers are finding supermarket prices raised — while supermarkets, despite soaring profits, are also benefiting from government crisis funds.  One in five families with children is going hungry in this wealthy country — and in poorer parts of the world, famines are under way.  Heat, power, and food are essentials for health — as is good housing.  Not accidentally, the poorest communities, and particularly people of colour are facing the highest death toll, along with older people, especially in the undervalued, under-resourced, underbelly of care — UK “care homes”, where PPE and testing arrive last for both workers and residents.

This is the horror now being confronted by a groundswell of grassroots people and networks, organising to support our own families and communities and to demand from the government, from politicians and from businesses, a total reversal of priorities.  Health must come first, and an economy that prioritises private profit has been shown not to deliver on health.  What has long been clear to millions who are fighting over fuel bills, housing, heating, food and inadequate incomes, is now public for the world to see.  So are the many money trees that can clearly be found when wanted.  The impossible has proved to be both do-able and essential.

At this moment of clarity, and with so many people and organisations coming together, we have a chance to move away from energy markets and housing provision that were already killing 10,000 people a year in cold homes.  And at the same time, as the clock nears midnight, we may have a chance to avert the worst of a climate apocalypse.

FPA is a very small, unfunded organisation and we can’t do all we would wish.  But like so many others, we are fighting for our lives:

1. Immediate survival

If you are in trouble with your bill or meter, do contact us.  FPA are not distributing fuel vouchers — we have no funding, and there are people better placed than us to do this work. However, we are working with people who have raised money for this purpose (eg Repowering London, in Lambeth; SGTO in Southwark – see Covid-19 fundraiser here) and wherever you are, if you let us know, we will do our best to put you in touch with help, including pressing your energy supplier for a better response to your emergency.

We are also keen to hear from you what problems you are having, and whether you have been able to access support, in order to better fuel our pressure on both the government and suppliers.  Personal stories can be powerful!

Our first action in response to the Covid crisis was to publicise — but challenge — the agreement reached by the government and energy suppliers.  It’s supposed to ensure that people who cannot pay their bills or top up their meters get help.  It is far too limited, and we find many people can’t even get through to the help lines.  Please see our petition (and sign it, if you haven’t yet).  The first demand is immediate free credit for all prepayment meter users so that they are not left in the cold while trying to negotiate with suppliers. The petition has had some good media coverage (below) and has helped shape the public debate.  It needs more signatures!

We are following this up with support for a petition put forward by People’s Energy, for a government grant fund to make sure people can get financial support — and not just deferment of payment, landing them further in debt.  We believe, however that suppliers who benefit from such a deal with the government, should meet certain conditions, including no dividends while they are in effect receiving public funds.  There are, after all, suppliers who have for years left people to die from cold, forced prepayment meters on people (sometimes illegally), lobbied against renewable energy, and benefited from subsidies of fossil fuels. They cannot continue along the same tracks.  But with the energy market failing to deliver, a government fund is now a matter of life and death.

We’ve written to the government about these two petitions. Unfortunately so far the response has been pathetic.   We have also pressed for the existing protections to be extended to users of District Heating, with some, incomplete, success.

 2. Looking forward

FPA are currently supporting several initiatives that you may also want to sign on to, with a view to making sure that we move forward to a liveable world instead of bailing out the forces that have made “normal” a disaster.

Build Back Better 

The UK’s Build Back Better campaign is being launched today, Tuesday 12 May, which is International Nurses Day.  We’ll be taking part — do join us, beginning today by  sharing the video in support of Nurses United UK, which went live at 8.30 am.  Build Back Better’s first demand is:

Secure the health of everyone in the UK now and into the future, irrespective of employment or nationality – including for food, healthcare, income, job security, good housing and access to clean and affordable energy and heat, public transport, clean air  and green spaces.  

We will be pressing forward with specific demands on the “housing” and “energy” parts.

A Care Income

FPA have signed up to an Open Letter to governments demanding an income for carers.  Launched by the Global Women’s Strike and Green New Deal for Europe (GNDE) in 12 languages, this letter is supported by grassroots organisations all over the world and is open for signatures (individuals too).  It’s particularly relevant now, with the huge increase in unpaid work as we care for our families, neighbours and communities (see GNDE’s Covid-19 statement).  But FPA have long supported the principle, which would give many women, particularly, an income that reflects their contribution, and is enough to cover heating and other essentials.  As the National Pensioners’ Convention recently wrote to Matt Hancock, “The government must invest in the future by: . . . a national care service [and] . . . Creating an income for ‘informal carers’ – those who save the government billions of pounds each year for the pittance of carer’s allowance or in lots of cases, nothing at all.”

Supporting these initiatives, FPA is extending more to attacking the “Income” side of fuel poverty, while we also contribute to the housing, retrofitting, and heating proposals of Green New Deal organisers — GND UK, GND Europe, and the Scottish “Our Common Home”.

A “Warm Floor”

Prompted by the urgent need for guaranteed heat and power we have picked up again the proposal we started putting forward over a year ago: that everyone should get a certain amount of energy for free — but tariffs would increase for energy used above and beyond that “floor”.  This would reverse the perverse present situation where people who can’t afford much energy, or who cut their usage for the climate, pay more per unit than those who use a lot.  Combined with protections for people who actually need a lot of energy, this “Warm Floor” would provide a level of security.  Please get in touch if you would like to help us work through whether and how this can best be implemented.  

Contracts for a real difference

We’ve endorsed an open letter to the government, from Biofuelwatch, which you may want to sign on to here.  It’s pretty technical but is focused on making sure that moves towards “green energy” end up being the real thing, and not a con, like many forms of biofuel.

Campaigning is not extremism

We have also signed onto the open letter calling for the National Police Chiefs Council to confirm – before the lockdown is over – that it will abandon the categorisation of political campaigning activities as “domestic extremism”. Netpol want to close this letter off by the end of this week — if you want to support the right to protest, and to organise in these critical and unpredictable times, you may want to sign on as well.

3. Fire and cold

We’ve continued to support residents of Pendleton high rise estate in Salford, who have lived for three years in buildings that have Grenfell-style cladding, and all the same other fire dangers as those found in Grenfell itself.  Not even the faulty fire doors have been fixed.  The cost to these social housing tenants’ mental health has been disastrous, and made worse by the social landlord.  Pendleton Together have been ordering tenants indoors when they’ve been out of the building more than half an hour — and threatening them with the police or implications for their tenancies.  We’ve rounded up support for them including from their MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.

Meanwhile in Parliament, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has published the findings of a survey into progress in dealing with fire risks since Grenfell.  1,352 people completed the survey, which found that:

  • 70% of respondents had different forms of combustible cladding and many had other fire safety issues like inadequate fire breaks (34%), and combustible or missing insulation (30%).
  • Residents’ mental health is still in pieces from living in flammable buildings, and many are also paying a high price financially, eg for 24-hour fire watch services.
  • There’s lots more — this 3-page report is well worth reading!
  • As the number of buildings facing re-cladding continues to expand, with residents fighting for the inclusion of buildings under 18 M high and with different types of flammable cladding, we’re continuing to raise the issue of homes being cold when cladding is off, succeeding.  We’ve helped get this included in others’ campaigns, eg here.

4. District Heating

  • When the virus struck, we were just beginning a series of meetings with residents on Southwark’s many council estates which are served by ageing and dysfunctional district heating networks.  Loss of heating and hot water happen all the time and residents, both tenants and leaseholders, are desperate.  While pressing for more lasting solutions, we have worked with Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations (SGTO) to make real a promise that the Council made last year: that at least people would not be out of pocket during break-downs when they’re forced to pay for electric space heaters and hot water.  Pre-lockdown we had a good meeting with the Council on the subject of this compensation.  It is understandable that follow-up has been delayed, but it is now even more urgent.  People in crisis can’t be expected to shoulder these extra costs.
  • Leaseholders in Southwark, and in New Festival Quarter private estate in Tower Hamlets, have been fighting demands for huge sums of money to pay for repairs to their heating system which do not improve things, and/or which should be covered by insurance claims or snagging.  We are also supporting them.
  • And we are actively supporting tenants on a Peabody estate, also in Tower Hamlets, who have been fighting for a fair tariff for their district heating — backdated to when they moved in, last September, having been given no contract or information about their heat. They have made some progress.
  • After years of pressure from ourselves and others, the government are finally consulting on regulations for the District Heating industry.  We will be submitting evidence to this, by 1 June, based on reports from users round the country – do send your experience in.  

Finally, if you would like to offer regular financial (or other!) support to FPA, please let us know.  We will shortly be launching a scheme called “Friends of FPA” for regular contributors, and it would be great to start out with a few named supporters. 

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