This article initially appeared in the Occupied Times. You can find it in the paper edition or online here.
Summer has arrived, and although the cold might not be biting too hard right now, the bite of our bills shows no respite. Fuel costs have grown seven times faster than income since 2004, and fuel bill debt has become a key aspect of UK private debt. As we struggle to pay off our bills in the summer, we dread the winter to come. According to the latest research, half of the UK population are set to be in fuel poverty by the end of the year. Thousands of people – particularly pensioners, young children and disabled people – might die from the cold, and millions will be forced to choose between heating or eating as they are unable to afford both.
The causes of fuel poverty tell a story of intersecting neoliberal trends. It begins with corporate monopolies: The ‘Big Six’ energy companies – British Gas, EDF, EON, RWE npower, Scottish Power and SSE – currently control our energy system and exercise complete authority over the production and pricing of energy. The Big Six’s business model depends on generating energy from fossil fuels, since this is currently the most profitable form of energy production. But because fossil fuels are becoming more difficult to extract in ‘conventional’ ways, companies are turning to new methods of ‘unconventional’ extraction, such as tar sands oil and fracking for gas. These modes of extraction, as well as being more polluting and dangerous, are more expensive and less efficient. The resulting additional costs are passed on to the consumer, and the Big Six are simultaneously seizing the opportunity to generate even more profit by pushing up bills beyond the rise in wholesale prices. It’s not just the number of fuel poverty households that is skyrocketing – the average annual pay package of Big Six bosses has doubled in the past ten years, from £637,000 to £1.35 million.
But the story doesn’t end at rising bills. As a result of the increasing privatisation of social housing, people are increasingly vulnerable to landlords as regulations for the protection of tenants are gradually removed. Drafty, damp and poorly insulated houses are the visible outcomes of this policy of deregulation.
On top of this, wage stagnation, low benefits and welfare cuts have made adequate heating a luxury for many Britons. This story has unravelled against the backdrop of close collaboration between the Big Six companies and government institutions. Recent exposés reveal that the Big Six have lent staff to government departments, influenced policy through informal consultations and paid for access to secret lobbying meetings.
Unsurprisingly, energy companies and the government have a different story to tell. The big lie they want us to swallow is that our bills are increasing as a result of the cost of ‘green measures’. Inaction on climate change is justified by a ‘commitment’ to bringing down the bills, while inaction on fuel poverty is justified by a ‘commitment’ to cooling down the planet. The truth is that increased investment in renewables accounted for just 6.5% of the increase in our bills between 2005 and 2010. Don’t be fooled by the government spin surrounding the new Energy Bill, which is adding another £200 to our bills under the auspices of funding renewables. In fact, this £200 is primarily a subsidy for new nuclear power stations.
We should not have to choose between being green and being poor. Real renewables – solar, wind and tidal – are cheaper than fossil fuels as well as false solutions like nuclear power and biofuels. Fuel poverty and climate change both arise from the profit-led drive towards corporate cartels and the commodification of energy, both of which have locked us into a system of fossil fuel consumption. If communities reclaimed control from corporations, they could generate their own energy using localised renewable sources and distribute this energy on the basis of people’s needs, not on the basis of their ability to pay.
Encouragingly, communities across the UK from Bristol to Brighton, and from Manchester to Brixton, are leading the way with community energy coops that strive to do just this. But we can’t hope to build real energy democracy in an undemocratic world. Positive energy alternatives must be built in the context of a broader movement for widespread social and economic change. Fuel Poverty Action is a campaign against fuel poverty and the Big Six’s monopoly in the UK, but we see our activities as part of a global movement for the reorganisation of society and the economy along democratic, fair and sustainable lines.
Central to our approach is the support of local communities in taking collective action that goes beyond bargaining with energy companies for a slightly cheaper deal. We’ve just launched a new community organising project in Haringey and are currently building for a London-wide public meeting in the autumn. In this, we hope to get anti-cuts groups, disabled people’s rights campaigners, residents’ associations, environmental activists and others together to strategise about how we can work together in the coming winter. Earlier this year, during our weekend of ’Winter Warm Ups’, communities across the country came together to occupy public spaces, town halls and energy company offices. Action like this can win immediate material gains. Furthermore, confrontational collective action of this sort can also pave the way for more widespread, systemic change by reminding each other that when we act together, new possibilities for resistance emerge. What would happen, for instance, if communities agreed to support each other in refusing to pay their energy bills, just as they did in refusing to pay the Poll Tax in the ’80s? This will take time – maybe years – spent community organising, skill-sharing and building support networks, but it can be done.
The struggle around fuel poverty spans across issues around energy, housing, austerity and economic justice; it needs input from each of these struggles if it is to stand a chance of winning. Millions of us are suffering at the hands of the energy companies and a complicit government. But if we come together to win this one, then who knows what else might follow?
Fuel Poverty Action needs you to get involved. If you’re interested, email us at email@example.com