Swale Borough Council: Fuel and Water Home Advice Service

When declaring the Climate and Ecological Emergency in 2019, Swale Borough Council committed to ensuring the most vulnerable in society were not adversely affected. To help deprived communities save money, improve their energy and water efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions, the Fuel and Water Home Adviser was appointed to work within communities to improve their livelihoods.

The challenge

Fuel poverty in Swale is around 10% of the population with some areas rising to 20% - some of the highest in the county. Water poverty is thought to be around the same figures. Additionally, many of the fuel and water poor are vulnerable and hard to reach. The consequences of fuel and water poverty has the wider impacts on health such as stress, social isolation, and exacerbates existing medical conditions. Living in a cold home also slows recovery from illness.

The aim of this project is to provide a programme of advice, support, guidance and education to enable households to understand and implement effective energy and water management solutions in the home, resulting in lower bills, reduced energy and water usage and a reduction in CO2 across the borough. Giving households the knowledge and tools they need to empower them to change their habits and behaviour around energy and water usage is essential to the role we all have to play in tackling the climate emergency, with their quality of life as the priority.

The service has been designed to work towards Swale Borough Council’s target to tackle the climate change emergency and to work in partnership to identify resources to help deliver programmes that tackle fuel and water poverty.

The solution

COVID-19 has meant we are unable to visit households to assess households needs and requirements since the appointment of the Fuel and Water Home Adviser in November 2020, however this has not halted the onset of the project. It was launched publicly in January 2021 and is set to continue for at least the next two years.

A social media campaign has been implemented promoting the project, advising of the service and inviting people to contact FWHA for support and advice, including energy and water saving tips, practical advice, switching advice, grants etc.

Swale Borough Council has included the project details in the quarterly magazine “Inside Swale” - alongside social media and digital advertising, this is enabling the service to reach a variety of demographics. We are cautious of the digital divide, acknowledging that the physical magazine is a key source of information for many residents.

By tendering the adviser to Seashells Children Centre, the nursery and support centre provides the perfect partner location to reach those that need the support the most. Leaflets have been placed in food bank boxes distributed across the borough.

FWHA will work with the households to;

  • assess their needs and requirements and advise and support accordingly
  • support households to speak with utility companies if the household is in debt
  • support households to change supplier and or tariff
  • support households to apply for grants
  • ensure all vulnerable households are signed up to the priority services register
  • advice and support will be given to become more energy efficient to change behaviours, to reduce their carbon footprint
  • support households with fuel and water accounts to work with householders to maximize their income.

Householders are able to self-refer into the service. Ongoing support is available to householders and follow up contact takes place at appropriate intervals to promote communication and build trust.

The FWHA is supplying households with a free consumer pack consisting of water and fuel saving tips, ideas and energy and water saving products to encourage households to help them live a greener lifestyle and save money.

The impact

Although the launch of the service was delayed due to continuing Covid-19 restrictions, as of end of June 2021, the benefits of the service are beginning to be seen:

  • 145 referrals have been received across the relevant postcode areas
  • 45 households signed to Priority Services Register for both Water and Fuel
  • 70 households supported to switch gas supplier – each household savings predicted to be between £75-£100
  • 50 households supported to switch electricity – each household predicted savings to be between £90 - £130
  • 5 households in severe water debt signed to Newstart with Southern Water – household savings of £500
  • 1 household with £2,000 water debt has been written off by Southern Water
  • 10 households received 20% reduction on their water account
  • 9 households supported to apply for grants (ongoing)
  • 1 household supported to approach the Environmental health officer regarding severe damp and missing window, this is now being dealt with by Swale Borough Council environment officer.
  • 1 household incorrect bill and meter reading – saving of £600 to householder.

This provides an initial average saving of £115 per household referral.

Current work is being undertaken to assess the carbon savings of the actions that have been implemented within households.

Lessons learned

The biggest lesson learnt whilst setting up this project has been that the effects of living in a cold home are complex, multi-faceted and not fully understood. For example, prepayment remains one of the most expensive payment methods along with cash and cheque. If a consumer is unable or unwilling to pay by direct debit or via the internet, this drastically reduces the range and variety of tariffs available. It also reduces the savings that can be made.

The Home Adviser has been working very closely with the two main water companies across the district, with an excellent scheme via their vulnerability team, working on a one to one basis with customers to reduce debt and gain a level of trust from their customers. This is not something the gas and electricity suppliers have in place and would be something that they should consider exploring.

Working with partner agencies is paramount to the success of this project as multi agency working and cross referring householders (with permission) means that the householder does not have to try and find someone that can help them with their particular needs. Cross referring enables partner agencies to explain what help is needed and the circumstances of the householder without the householder feeling as though they have to keep explaining their circumstances time and time again, which is something found to be a one of the most complained about aspects of speaking with utility companies.

Delivery of this project has not been as difficult as first imagined with the Covid restrictions that are in place. Working virtually has been very successful as it has enabled the adviser to speak with households at a mutually convenient time, without stress to a householder that may be embarrassed about their living conditions or feeling that they have to tidy up before allowing someone into their home. It also gives the flexibility of speaking with householders in the evening whilst children are in bed, for example. A rapport is built with the householder and gain trust before entering the home when delivering the energy efficiency packs.

This is also having an impact on time as it means the adviser spends less time travelling between households. She believes she will carry on to some extent working virtually with households when the Covid restrictions are lifted.