Sunday, 26 January 2014

Why are we the Cold Man of Europe?'

The Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) reported last year that Britain was the 'Cold man of Europe' because we came near the bottom of the league out of 15 European countries on a range of indicators such as fuel poverty, affordability of home heating and thermal performance of housing [1]. Why is our housing stock so bad compared to the rest of Europe? Warning: this post is a bit more political than usual.

We certainly do score badly for fuel poverty. In the ACE report the UK came 14/15 for the percentage of households who claim they cannot afford to heat their homes properly. Though to be fair we were not that much worse than France and Germany: 6.5% in the UK, 6.0% in France and 5.2% in Germany. Also they report that UK households spend a high proportion of their income on energy. However this was based on rather old data: the UK figure 6.9% comes from 2005. According to recent data (2012) from ONS it now 4.7% [3].

A high proportion of fuel poverty could be due to a number of reasons:
  • Our fuel costs are high
  • Our homes are very inefficient to heat 
  • We have severe income inequality, so that many poor households struggle to pay their fixed costs never mind 'extras' like heat.
In fact our fuel costs are low compared to most of Europe, so that definitely is not the problem.

ACE say our homes are inefficient. This is based on two measures: the average U-value of walls and the proportion of people living in homes in a poor state of repair: 'leaking roof, damp walls, floors or foundation, or rot in the window frames or floor'. For the U values table there were only eight countries reported (Germany was not among them) and although we were 7th we were considerably better than France (1.7 compared to 1.2 for the UK, large values are  bad).  In any case, I have little confidence in this ranking because of uncertainty in the U values of existing housing stock. The assumption in the UK for solid brick walls  has long been 2.1 but recent surveys suggest it is nearer 1.4 [4].

The data for the proportion of homes in a poor state of repair comes from Eurostat [5] and doesn't look good for the UK: 17.2% compared to 13.5% for Germany and 12.8% for France.
There is almost nothing between us, France and Germany on heating used per dwelling or by area of dwelling (from the Odysee database) [6]. That doesn't mean our homes are as efficient as the others - it could mean we don't heat them to the same level of comfort. Those figures don't tell us much.

The ACE report didn't look at the third reason I list above: income inequality. The UK ranks poorly compared to the rest in Europe on two measures for this (again from Eurostat[5]): In the UK the top 20% of households earn 5.4 times as much as the bottom 20% (the Income Quintile Share Ratio). For France and Germany the ratio is 4.5 and 4.3. Also the proportion of households at risk of poverty or social exclusion is 24.1% for the UK compared to 19.1 and 19.6 for France and Germany. Even if our homes were as good as those in France and Germany, the higher income inequality would mean more households unable to afford sufficient heating. However, households in poverty are unlikely to maintain their homes adequately so you would expect more leaky dwellings in countries with high inequality. If you compare the shape of the 'poor maintenance' chart above with the 'inequality indicators' below, you will see they are broadly similar. In particular, Denmark scores badly on both. In fact the Danes also use more energy to heat their homes and spend a higher proportion of their income on doing so (7.4% in 2005). It is not clear why they consider this situation affordable.

In summary, although we don't have high fuel costs and we don't use more heating energy in our homes than comparable European countries we do have a problem in the UK with affordability of heating. This is probably related to greater income equality and hence poor maintenance of dwellings. Fixing our homes would help. Fixing inequality would be even more sustainable.


[1] Factfile: the Cold man of Europe (UKACE, 2013)
[2] Commission Staff Working Paper: An Energy Policy for Consumers Brussels: European Commission. (EU, 2010)
[3] Components of Household Expenditure 2012 (ONS, 2013)
[4] Do U-value insulation? England's field trial of solid wall insulation (EST, 2013)
[5] Eurostat
[6] Odyssee (Energy Efficiency Indicators in Europe)

1 comment:

  1. No great surprises there apart from the solid wall bit. While the facts you have put together have political implications, I don't see the post as particularly political.